A wildly inconsistent director even in his heyday when he followed up Point Blank and Deliverance with The Exorcist II and Zardoz, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory remains something of an outlier in his filmography, a personal coming-of-age film sitting amongst a variety of thrillers and fantasies. Telling the story of a boy growing up in the UK during WW2, the film is imbued with a wonderful sense of bittersweet nostalgia—Boorman evidently remembers this time of his life as a never-ending Boy’s Own adventure, a time of exploring bombed-out ruins with chums and playground fighting, before moving to his grandfather’s country home with its rivers and fields and summertime wistfulness. The realities of war are, for the most, distant, a faraway concern for adults, something that Hope and Glory subtly acknowledges. There’s a constant undercurrent of danger, of the potential for the idyll to be smashed by bearers of bad news or by a German plane. Boorman strikes just the right balance between the two tones, in the process acknowledging where his own taste for adventure cinema arose from.
Peter Mullan’s tale of gang youths in Glasgow embodies much of British kitchen-sink melodrama’s visceral power, as well as some of its flaws and clichés. Telling the story of John McGill’s (Conor McCarron) journey from bookish pre-teen to rampaging teenager beset by his raging alcoholic father and criminal older brother, Neds is certainly littered with powerful performances and perceptive details; unsurprising as the film is partly autobiographical for Mullan. The main revelation here is McCarron, who resembles a young Ray Winstone in the hard-hitting Scum, another film that dealt harshly with youth violence in ‘70s Britain. However, despite these considerable strengths, Neds is hamstrung by a certain predictability and a certain degree of misery-wallowing, where dramatic strength is sacrificed for blunt violence and gruesomeness. No doubt it is a realistic and engaging portrayal, but to what end?
The Kings of Summer exists in that kind of Ameri-indie dramedy netherworld that seems to be a standard go-to for fledgling US filmmakers, where quirky characters and purposely awkward dialogue go hand-in-hand with themes of stunted adulthood and fragile masculinities. I sound as if I’m disdainful of The Kings of Summer. I’m not, but it is a film that flitters between being utterly terrible and mawkish with all the worst trappings of generic American indie films (I’m looking at you Garden State), and being potentially one of the best examples of the genre, almost on a par with the best work of its deified godfather Wes Anderson. It has an excellent sense of humour and some excellent dramatic work, which it nearly torpedoes with predictable accessions to cliché and forced quirk.
The story is about three teenage boys, Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moisés Arias), who decide to run away during the summer and build a wooden house in the middle of the forest, where they live as nature intended. Joe and Patrick are both frustrated with their parents, with Joe’s dad Frank (Nick Offerman) an overbearingly strict and dull presence since the death of Joe’s mother, whilst Patrick’s parents are suffocatingly sweet and blissfully unaware of the travails of adolescent cynicism.
One can easily argue that both boys are a bit spoilt and unaware of the comparatively minimal size of their problems, but then again most teenagers have a habit of blowing things way out of proportion. Biaggio, for his part, is an outcast who initially latches onto Joe, before being accepted into the group. His motivations for joining with the group are unclear, but according to the film it doesn’t particularly matter, as he’s there primarily for comic relief, and Arias duly rises to the challenge, making Biaggio the most easily likeable and amusing of the three. It’s a shame then, that he doesn’t develop beyond a joke-machine, spilling bizarre non-sequiturs everywhere (“I met a dog the other day, it taught me how to die”). Despite the fact that many of these lines are well-written, it’s the first of the script’s many failings.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts at least does make the adventure aspects of the film work brilliantly. Much of the film is spent in the summer house, as the boys bond and try to hunt or gather food. The scenes here have a magnificent, sun-dappled appeal, a sense of isolation (even though logistically the summer house can’t be very far from town: the boys walk there), and a freewheeling improvisational sense, all undercut with the ever-present notion that these scenes amount to little more than boys playing dress-up as adults; there is a great deal of ruminating on the mentality of Manifest Destiny, which the film quite rightly treats as childish and adolescent. Joe in particular is quite obsessed with idea of becoming a man, of claiming his masculinity by living out in the wild and taking the land as his own, even though the opposite is true. Once the realities of outdoor living come to hit—hunger, dangerous wildlife, social isolation—he wants nothing more than to return home to warmth and shelter, even if that means giving up on his terms.
Unfortunately the script, written by Chris Galletta, crowbars in an unfortunately contrived and predictable third act in which many of the elements foreshadowed in earlier scenes come to a head in entirely foreseeable ways, be they the heartbreak of teenage infatuation or venomous snakes. Again here, we see the wonderful humour and the fascinating drama within the film being beset by cliché and just plain lazy storytelling; during the last twenty minutes of The Kings of Summer I mostly switched off, because the ending was so clearly telegraphed and such a disappointment compared to the more freewheeling earlier sections. Nevertheless, the film has plenty going for it: this is a likeable, charming and effective coming-of-age tale, directed with style and love for the characters. Worth a look.
Rooted in the great British tradition of kitchen-sink realism, The Selfish Giant is a fine work, aided by strong, truthful performances (especially from its two young stars, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) and poetic, lucid direction from Clio Barnard. Very loosely based on a short story by Oscar Wilde, we follow Arbor (Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Thomas) as the two young teenagers are expelled from school for fighting, finding themselves drawn into the scrap-metal business under the ambiguous Kitten (Sean Gilder). Living in the dingy council suburbs of Bradford, the two boys have evidently lived most of their lives in poverty, with Swifty also having to deal with xenophobia due to his Irish Traveller heritage (not helped by the fact that his father is an abusive, debt-ridden alcoholic).
The spirit of Ken Loach, in particular his most famed film, Kes (1969), looms large here with both films turning on relationships built between kids and animals. Then again the tradition of British cinematic realism that Ken Loach emerged from in the 60s goes all the way back to Italian Neorealism in the 1940s and from even before that in literature and theatre. Like all good realist films, The Selfish Giant is built on lyricism and detail rather than documentary fact, and Clio Barnard has an eye for framing the film in the landscape of Northern post-industrial England—rolling hills, forlorn power stations, dewy morning fog.
Just as important is the empathy and understanding she brings to the characters: even the ostensible villain of the piece, Kitten, who sends the boys out to steal scrap metal so as to avoid being caught himself, is portrayed as a complex figure ridden with guilt and worry, offset by financial goblins weighing on his back. He contemplates becoming a reluctant father figure to Swifty, noticing the boy’s talent around horses, and encouraging the boy to train his prize horse for races. Though even his kinder acts have the air of exploitation about them, there is an evident understanding within the film that this is more a by-product of systematic inequality in the UK, rather than willing, intentionally harmful exploitation. The relationship between working animals and working children that Barnard draws here works as a fine metaphor for the general state of working relations in most areas of deprived, inner-city Britain.
Most important to the film however, are the excellent performances Barnard draws from Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas. The two never come across as anything other than themselves, two otherwise ignored kids that bind together as a defence mechanism against the Darwinian social structure of high school and the wider world, with Swifty being the larger, gentler and more thoughtful of the two and Arbor a perpetual ball of rage, energy and bubbling insecurity, egged on by copious amounts of energy drink. Ultimately, without their presence and truthfulness at the centre of the film, there would be little to praise about The Selfish Giant. However, with them it stands as an excellent example of contemporary British realism, alive to the ill-effects, debilitations and arrogance of Thatcherism and Blairism on the landscape of Britain outside of its major cities.
On the surface of it, Tango Argentino seems like a fairly typical Yugoslav comedy of the kind that was ten-a-penny in the 1980s: warm, gently satirical but not entirely focused on anything grander and often with a meandering plot. Nikola (Nikola Zarković) is a young boy on school holidays, visibly worried at the strained financial situation in his family, as well as the tension between mum and dad (Ina Gogálová and Miki Manojlović). With mum tempted by the prospects of (albeit dodgy) employment in newly capitalist Bulgaria, Nikola takes it upon himself to take on her former job as a maid for old-age pensioners. To make matters more difficult, his father has been tempted by a promotion at the music conservatoire where he works, the caveat being that his employers want his wife to look after their elderly parents. To compensate for the volume of work he has to do, Nikola ingeniously gathers his elderly charges together, making them crash over at each other’s dusty apartments whilst engaging in general partying and entertainment with each other.
So far, this is rather standard. Any number of Yugoslavia’s flourishing filmmakers in the 1980s could have made Tango Argentino. But the date of the film’s release is not the 1980s. It is January 1992. By 1992, the old Yugoslavia had ceased to be. Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia had already declared independence, and Bosnia was about to hold its own referendum on the subject in March. Soon, Yugoslavia would be solely made up of Serbia (including the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina) and Montenegro, a rump, disintegrating state and a shadow of its former self.
The pensioners which little Nikola looks after are made up of Partisan war veterans. Two in particular, the tango singer Popović (Mija Aleksić) and Kerečki (Milivoje Tomić) were even in the same unit in WWII. They are dyed-in-the-wool communists, fervently believing in the old ideals of brotherhood and unity. Two generations beneath them is our protagonist Nikola. Although he appears to model himself as a businessman—he wants to own a popcorn machine and sees it as key to the family’s financial independence—he is in many ways an ideal Communist youth pioneer; obedient, hard-working and full of empathy and care for his fellow human beings. Nikola is the sort of child that, fifteen years earlier, might have been chosen to relay the baton to Tito on Youth Day. He’s the sort of child that Emir Kusturica made a film about with his masterpiece When Father Was Away on Business (1985), and he is in some ways almost identical to the child that becomes disillusioned with Tito in Goran Marković’s equally brilliant Tito and Me (1992). Here, he is trapped by the world of the adults, and able to reach out the generation above them only fleetingly. Pretty soon, Nikola’s time with the old folk is up, as they inevitably either shuffle off this mortal coil or their flustered and greedy adult children note that their parents are attempting to regain some independence on their own behalf, swooping in to cut out such shenanigans.
In Tango Argentino, the middle generation, the ones wielding the power, and supposedly the ones at the right age to provide a mixture of youthful energy and life-learned experience, prove to be the most ignorant and hard to shift of the three, drawing themselves towards petty, greedy arguments. The allegory is crystal clear, considering what Yugoslavia was undergoing at the time.
Goran Paskaljević, an alumni of the Prague School (along with both Kusturica and Marković and a number of other highly regarded Yugoslav directors), provides here a damning indictment of a generation in Yugoslavia that stood at its most crucial moment after WWII: after Tito and after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, it was precisely this middle generation depicted in Tango Argentino that had the responsibility of shifting coherently from one world paradigm to another. And it was a failure, with such failures damning future generations.
And yet, despite this dark undertow to the film, it remains an incredibly warm and heart-felt love-letter to a Yugoslavia that was at this point dying fast. The film is bathed in warm yellowish light, as if the last embers of the Yugoslav summer were being sprinkled across Paskaljević’s autumnal frame. The mood was already ugly in 1992, but it would turn far far uglier soon. By 1998 Paskaljević had written and released Cabaret Balkan, a searing indictment of the mess that Milošević had turned Yugoslavia into. That film is one of the most nihilistic and depressing films to have ever come from the former Yugoslavia, and there are many contenders for that prize. That it came only six years after Tango Argentino beggars belief, as if the trauma of the 90s was so deep that even the bittersweet remembrance of better times was too painful to bring oneself back to.
The film’s final scenes encapsulate this pained beauty like few others. Escaping from the geriatric hospital where he has been placed by his greedy son, Popović tracks down Nikola. With the last remains of his savings, the old man suggests the two go on a trip to the Adriatic Coast. They arrive in Montenegro and jump into the golden blue ocean, liberated and free. The Adriatic Coast, which is mostly Croatian today (Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro all have small stretches of it) was the place where my parent’s generation would go on holiday. In the time of socialist Yugoslavia, worker’s wages were high enough that most families could afford to go on holiday to the Adriatic, even on a casual weekend. That whole generation remembers the seaside trip to the coast as a vital part of childhood and adolescence. Today, people still go of course. But now they have borders and passports, paperwork and queues, where once there was only the winding mountainous, but ever so open road.
A film with a very special place in my heart…because it was this film I watched with my girlfriend on our very first date together. Whilst I might have been edging close to that scene in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle takes Cybil Shepherd to a porn cinema—the sex scenes really are too long and narratively uninteresting—as far as films detailing the growth and collapse of a relationship go, few are as epic or in-depth as Blue is the Warmest Colour. Director Abdellatif Kechiche keeps most of the entire three-hour running-time in close-up, drawing us closely into Adéle’s (Adéle Exarchopoulos) world. Just as well then that her performance and that of her co-star Léa Seydoux, are astounding in their emotional honesty, lighting up the screen and holding the baggier parts of a flawed three-hour movie entirely together.
American Graffiti would make a fine double-bill with Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Certainly, outside of the veneer of nostalgia there is in both films an air of sadness, of an innocence lost, although in Lucas’ film it is less pronounced. Not surprising, given that Lucas has always shown a strong desire to return to childhood, much like his good pal Steven Spielberg. What results then is a film with an brilliant sense of place and time—with some utterly beautiful cinematography to boot—and some strong performances, but a certain weightlessness to it. Lucas does not have nearly the same eye for social observation as Linklater does, and that is where the two films depart. Still though, I’ll take Chuck Berry over fucking Foghat any day.
Navigating the Kafka-esque brutality of American high school, Richard Linklater’s cult hit has recently had a new lease of life thanks to the release of its spiritual sequel Everybody Wants Some! What strikes me about Dazed and Confused, aside from the brilliant sense of place and time that Linklater evokes through music and production design, is just how directionless all of its major characters are: people with hopes and dreams, standing only at the first gasp of their lives, ready to divide into a million directions. Few writer/directors are as adept as Linklater in evoking feelings of listlessness in his protagonists, and Dazed and Confused is one of his best in that regard.