Joe brings together the two ultimate forces in unpredictability: director David Gordon Green whose palette ranges the sweet transcendental mumblecore of Prince Avalanche to the balls out stoner comedies Your Highness and Pineapple Express – and his leading man, the irrepressible Nicolas Cage with a repertoire spanning Oscar-winning brilliance to bug-eyed straight-to-video mania. A collaboration that could veer in any number of directions, but here heralds a welcome level of restraint from both parties as it spins a taut, dishevelled folky yarn against an absorbing Deep South backdrop.
In a film intrinsically about restraint, chained vicious dogs taut on their leads form its recurring image. “What keeps me alive is restraint. Keeps me from hurting people. Keeps me outta jail, ” says Joe (Cage), the hard drinking, chain smoking man who crosses paths with his ultimate salvation in the form of the eager faced young drifter Gary – played with authentic perfection by Mud’s Tye Sheridan. Away from his sickeningly abusive, alcoholic father (Gary Poulter) he finds in Joe the role model his life has so far lacked. He is taken under the wing and offered a chance of work, and the unlikely pair are able to find solace in each other. But protecting the young down-and-out invites the kind of trouble Joe has desperately tried to avoid.
The plot is simplistic enough, arching through the turns of fate that bring Joe’s struggle against his own nature to its bloody breaking point – as his dog breaks from its shackles in the most literal sense possible. Thick in broad metaphor throughout, there is little left to chance in the depictions of good and evil, so despite the credibility of the milieu there is a constant through line of allegory that underpins events in the backwater.
Far more impressive, though, is the flea-bitten dressing of the frame, the poetic atmosphere conjured from the hanging smoke and bedraggled cast of secondary characters. Offset against the pulpy nature of the narrative – and the casting of Cage – Green’s unfussy direction and ramshackle assortment of non-actors forms a rural South with more resonance and authenticity than most, typified by a staggering performance from Gary Poulter as Gary’s vile father – a real life homeless man with no real acting experience whose audition for a minor role brought his characterful face and presence to the director’s attention. A fascinating story, but one with a tragic conclusion – Poulter was found dead before the film’s release in an eerie reflection of the fictional events.
This is a visceral vision of deadbeats and drifters over what, in the end, is a fairly lightweight structure. Lacking a beer swilling, work booted kick to the head, Joe is a film happier to burn slowly – immersing us in its doomed characters and broken down towns. While the violence still bares its teeth, it's the relationships that linger on the conscious, rendering the lack of killer bite a minor inconvenience. As with his character, Cage is able to demonstrate vast self-control to produce his most minimal, powerful performance in an age. Carrying the heft of a man battling his demons, every moment of his gruff tattooed screen time is captivating, with his underplayed exchanges with Sheridan containing the film’s real heart.
[ 2013 — Dir: David Gordon Green — 117 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
It’s easy to become fatigued with coming-of-age tales set against a backdrop of conflict or social unrest, but Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s remarkable In Bloom – which takes 1992’s Georgian Civil War as its allegorical scenery – is told with such attuned sensitivity and organic performances it swiftly eclipses those that tread on similar ground.
Most immediately striking is the earthy visual appearance graded in washed-out blues and greens, utilising a string of real Georgian housing estates and rundown landscapes to leave the film absorbed in an unbroken reality. In this setting we are introduced to 14-year-old best friends Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria), two girls attempting to be normal teenagers while surrounded by conflict in every facet of their lives. From the breadline to the classroom they are engulfed by the fraught tensions of a country on the edge, and must somehow decide how complicit to be in a world of vigilantism and anger. While discovering boys and having their first fag, the girls go through all the high drama of youth but, amplified by a country shaking with unrest, there is barely time for the friends to grow before the grim realities of adulthood are forced upon them.
The actual fighting in Abkhazia is left unseen, and only briefly alluded to in conversation or overheard news reports. But it forms the deep-lying culture of violence and aggression that spills into the girls' lives – relentless bullying and intimidation at school, a drunken unruly father, a young girl bundled into a car and strong-armed into marriage. It’s a world where a handgun is an acceptable gift between lovers, carried through a park as casually as a bunch of flowers. What is most impressive, then, is how directors Ekvtimishvili and Groß never once sensationalise events, permitting each turn to happen with a matter-of-fact thud, nimbly dodging the temptation to plaster music over every heartfelt scene, instead settling on the more powerful reality of silence and ever so slightly elongated single takes.
A theme of contrast and conflict is perhaps most vividly expressed in the lives of Eka and Natia’s friends and sisters, whose hoop earrings, make-up and sass run in parallel with a society governed by domineering men, overbearing mothers-in-law and a strong line in traditional values. In the standout scene Eka, the unwilling guest at a wedding, breaks into a mesmerising fluid folk dance, partly embracing the raucous tradition of the occasion, but never once breaking a smile as she finds her own release from the suffocating burden of her adolescent emotions.
In Bloom is a work of sincere depth demonstrably about universal friendships and awkward formative years, but simultaneously an approachable study of a conflicted nation in transition. We do not learn the whys and hows of the political unrest, but we experience its subtle impact on the everyday – a more valuable and far-reaching asset.
[ 2013 — Dir: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß — 102 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
Part of the brand spanking new Woody Allen Collection – an 8 film box set of the yammering, neurotic auteur’s under-appreciated work of the 1990s – Small Time Crooks is one of its many films due a reappraisal. While it’s unlikely to make it onto many Best of Allen countdowns, this lightweight comedy caper fills a comfortable place between most knockabout Hollywood comedies and his more finely tuned cerebral work.
Beginning with a frothy caper narrative in the great tradition of the word, Allen plays one of his dumb schmuck roles as Ray, an ex-con who hatches a flawless plan to rob a bank, with help from his equally clueless pals – including Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport & Tony Darrow – all of which is greeted by his long suffering wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) with raised eyebrows and weary disdain. Undeterred, the ramshackle bunch of halfwits plough ahead, renting a shop a few doors down from the bank and getting Frenchy to set up a front selling cookies while they begin tunnelling in the basement. Complete disaster ensues, apart from the wildly successful cookie business that heralds the start of a multi-million dollar franchise – and new lives for them all, in particular for Frenchy who is determined to use her wealth to buy the class and status she’s always dreamed of.
The wisecracking caper opening is what Small Time Crooks is best remembered for, but it only forms a small part of why the film is such an effortless joy. The pace may slow and the slapstick may evaporate when the robbery fails – but this is when it becomes a real Woody Allen film. Taking on a more melancholic mood, albeit still alive with the expertly selected jazz score, the downplayed cultural revolution and the nouveau riche extravagance lead to some surprisingly tender and sharply scripted moments – a completely unexpected turn after the earlier high jinks.
As so often in Allen’s movies, his name takes the head of the poster, but it’s the female characters that steal the show, with his role more of a foil to their performances. The multitalented Tracey Ullman shines in one of her few feature roles, and is the centrepiece of all that works. The haranguing wife is so often a disposable nothing character simply employed to nag and fret, but by spinning the plot on its head Allen is able to show off Ullman’s comedic and dramatic talents, subverting our plot expectations in the process.
Essentially a breezy riff on the phrase 'money can’t buy you happiness', the zinger count may be down slightly and there is a slightly awkward tonal conflict between the two movements, but all in all, Small Time Crooks is one of Allen’s most likeable efforts. Funny, with a decent tinge of bittersweet, it squeezes all the jovial fun from the caper with something refreshing and unforeseen in its back-pocket.
Also packaged in the Woody Allen Collection are Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), Sweet And Lowdown (1999), and Barbara Kopple’s documentary Wild Man Blues (1997) – all films I’m looking forward to rediscovering. The beauty of his work is that although the critics may only jump on one film every few years, there is always something to savour in his consistent annual output. They can’t all be Annie Hall, but we’ll miss our regular jaunts through neurosis and narcissism when they’re gone.
[ 2000 — Dir: Woody Allen — 94 mins — PG cert — IMDb ]
The Woody Allen Collection is now available on DVD
This micro budget British indie comedy makes for a fantastic showcase for the acting talents of its unknown star Georgia Maguire, but a lack of any imagination or ambition limit it’s pleasures to the bare minimum. The joys of small independent films often come from the risks they’re able to take, free from the shackles of money and stars, they present a counterpoint, an opportunity to do something experimental or at the very least adventurous. This is an opportunity Love Me Till Monday shuns at every possibility, as it offers its uninspiring story of Becky’s (Maguire) post-uni life in provincial Reading, as she works a dead end job searching for ‘the one’.
There is some rich potential in this mid-twenties phase of life that falls awkwardly between adolescence, and full-blown adulthood. Again a chance not taken in favour of insincere romance and shambling office stereotypes. It isn’t a bad film because it’s sentimental, or accessible; it fails because it simply doesn’t offer anything. I could flick on to any weeknight soap opera 15 minutes in and have the same shallow emotional experience, and probably more laughs. When it comes to feature films that hundreds of people have invested their lives into, that just a’int good enough.
Scored with a catalogue of nauseating indie-folk-pop it never makes itself easy to like, but within the general tedium there are few breakout moments. For starters there is a perverse enjoyment in how uncool Becky’s life is. It paints a drearily honest picture of life in suburban England, shunning the grit and the high rises you’d most readily associate with homegrown indies, in favour of the high streets and PVC windows of our familiar middle England. The risk of this is that it can easily look like an episode of Hollyoaks, unless given some flair or verve – as in Edgar Wright’s joyously observed Cornetto trilogy; genre movies with a deep love for the eccentricities of Britain, that found something cinematic in the most unlikely of places.
While limited by its shoestring budget, it’s the lack of any passion – on screen, or off – that kills Love Me Till Monday dead. With nothing to care about narratively our full focus lands on the performance of Maguire, a young actress – who mercifully – is up to the task of dragging a tepid support cast, and flat script kicking and screaming along with her into something on the verge of watchability. Director Justin Hardy has plainly aimed for naturalism and Maguire at least is up to task, effortlessly feeling like a living breathing woman, attempting to find her way in the world – albeit one trapped in a flimsy made-for- TV movie. A cheap and passionless affair that is solely redeemed by this performance, Love Me Till Monday has next to nothing to offer aside from this glimpse of a potential star in the making.
[ 2013 — Dir: Justin Hardy — 93 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]