The last day of the cinema: “Nocturnal” (2019), “White Riot” (2019), and “Bill and Ted Face the Music” (2020)

I will review these together as I saw them all on the same day (though not at the same tyme). Three films in one day? Had i gone mad? Perhaps, but if so I had been driven mad by the cruel world in which we live. Rising Covid-19 cases in Dublin meant that we were being put at Level 3+ of our restrictions map – it was announced on Friday 18 September that from midnight restaurants and the like would be closing, but also cinemas! The horror. If taking a half day off work so that I could see three films before the screens went dark means that I am mad then put me in a straitjacket. Though I should note that never having seen three films in a row before I was wondering whether I would enjoy the experience or perhaps suffer from massively declining marginal utility. Read on and see how this astonishing experiment panned out.
Nocturnal is set in a coastal town in Yorkshire. Pete, a handyman working at a running track, sees Laurie, a teenage girl, training and starts staring at her. She spots him staring at her and calls him out on it, but they somehow strike up a conversation and start hanging out together (despite dark jokes from the girl about how her photo wiil be appearing on Crimewatch and from the guy about disposing of bodies in hydrochloric acid). You might find yourself imagining where this story is going, but it doesn’t go that way (unless you are very good at guessing the plots of films, in which case maybe it does go the way you are imagining it).

Someone did say that part of the appeal of Nocturnal is that it is like an entire film based on Morrissey’s ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ – not the plot, but the feel of a seaside town as being kind of shit. It is the kind of place that anyone with half a brain leaves as soon as they can (though we soon learn that Pete is somehow stuck there and Laurie has been brought back). The way Pete and Laurie are presented is interesting, with the handyman inarticulate and unexpressive, something accentuated by the way for much of the early part of the film we barely see his face, and Laurie considerably more confident. Yet they are both outsiders to a degree, Pete a loner who struggles to connect with people (for all that he seems to be able to charm women, he is unable to maintain relationships with them) and Laurie a blow-in from exciting cosmopolitan Dublin who is now stuck in this provincial kip among locals who see her as stuck up and looking down on them.

And so it goes. Maybe the film is a bit slight and the reveal a bit predictable, but director Nathalie Biancheri has put it together atmospherically and the two leads, played by Cosmo Jarvis and Lauren Coe, deliver strong performances, so I recommend.

After a short break I had film number 2, Rubika Shah’s White Riot, which was about the Rock Against Racism movement that emerged in late 1970s in response to the increasingly prominent and confident National Front and the uttering of far-right or far-right-adjacent opinions by a number of musicians (notably Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and David Bowie). Starting life as small group of people putting together an anti-fascist fanzine, Rock Against Racism became a nationwide movement, putting on gigs, organising demos and eventually combining the two with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a big concert in Victoria Park.
The film is entertaining, focussing on the activists themselves. It avoids having Bono show up to tell us all how amazing RAR was – while there are musicians giving their side, they don’t take over the narrative. I particularly liked that they had the least famous member of the Clash giving his self-effacing but interesting spiel (this may have been making a virtue of necessity, of course).

The most interesting thing about the film for me was the evocation of that period of crisis in the 1970. I know we talk about the far right being on the rise now, but back then the National Front was marching proudly through British streets and looking like it was on the brink of an electoral breakthrough. Moreover, there was nothing dog-whistley about the NF’s racism, with its leaders upfrontedly campaigning on a platform of expelling all non-whites from the country (“What about people who don’t want to go?” an interviewer asks a National Front leader at one point, to which he smugly replies “Oh they’ll go”). The film is also interesting for the friendly relations between the NF and the cops who were assisting them in their marches and demonstrations, something that attendees at RAR counter-demonstrations were often shocked by (somewhat surprisingly though, the 1979 murder by cops of anti-racist activist Blair Peach is not mentioned, though I suppose it did not happen at a RAR event). But you also get that sense of the 1970s as a time of general ferment, with schoolkids passing out anti-NF leaflets to their classmates and a general interest in all kinds of politics.

There’s a lot of music in the film, as can be imagined: reggae obviously but also various punk tunes. ‘White Riot’ gets a look in but the acts whose mentions are most interesting are the Tom Robinson Band and Sham 69. Perhaps unfairly I think of Tom Robinson as a bit of a second or third division punker, right-on politics disguising some pretty mediocre music. The film though makes clear that he was an important player in the RAR movement and someone who leant his support early when it was neither profitable nor popular. The film largely climaxes with a big RAR concert in Hackney; one of the organisers talks about how although the Clash were playing and were a bigger and probably better band, she stuck her neck out to insist on Tom Robinson headlining, as he had done so much for RAR and played the kind of positive music that would bring people together (there’s a nice bit where Topper then says “Well obviously we weren’t used to not headlining, but it wasn’t all about us so we took it on the chin”).

The other band were Sham 69. Again, I think of them as another second or third division punk band, the kind of act who came into being because the first thing they heard was the Sex Pistols and not all the people who had influenced them. Some of the RAR people talked about how Sham 69 had acquired a bit of a yobbo following, some of whom were a bit far right adjacent. Some of the RAR people were saying that Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 was wary of directly denouncing the far right, as people had been doing too much lecturing of the kind of the people who made up the band’s yobbo following, though part of the film’s story is him deciding to play the big RAR gig and nail his colours to the mast. I am reminded here a bit of how back in the day Madness had a bit of a far right skinhead following, reputedly because i) skinheads loved Two Tone music and ii) Madness were the one big all-white Two Tone band; Madness wanted to bring their bad followers along to the light rather than lose them by preaching at them, though I suppose not wanting to alienate the people buying your records must also play a part here.

Anyway, the film has a happy ending — the efforts of Rock Against Racism successfully unite the kids against the National Front, whose legitimacy fades to the extent that the NF fails to make an electoral breakthrough in the 1979 election before fading away as a political force, the end. Post 1979 events are largely not covered.
And finally we have Bill and Ted Face The Music, a sequel to their excellent adventure and bogus journey. In this one Bill & Ted are older but a bit washed up, having failed to actually unite the world with a cover version of a KISS song at the end of their bogus journey. Then it turns out that not merely the world but the entirety of the universe, past present and future, is about to end unless they finally come up with a song that will unite humanity. So they travel forward in time to meet their future selves in the hope that they will tell them how the song goes, but this means they meet increasingly strange alternate Bills and Teds. Meanwhile their daughters (yes, they have daughters) are travelling backwards in time to recruit the greatest musicians of human history (including Har Mar Superstar, obv) to be Bill & Ted’s backing band.

It’s a lot of fun and just the kind of thing to see before they close the cinemas again and the world goes to hell in a hand basket again. The stuff about older Bill & Ted (and all the even older Bills & Teds) is entertaining and at times touching, while the daughters (Billie & Thea, played by Brigette Lundy-Paine & Samara Weaving) are both totally awesome female analogues of Bill & Ted, but kind of more together than their Dads but not in a way that plays to stereotypes of paternal incompetence. I hear there is talk of some kind of Billie & Thea spin off series and that would be astounding. There’s lot of funny stuff in it too, like the killer robot or the woman from Flight of the Conchords (her name is Kristen Schaal), and Dave Grohl.
One of the things that is really appealing about the Bill & Ted films is that they are both very likeable. They are two blokes but they never feel blokey. The characters are older and craggier but they’re still keeping on. I must admit though, I am still somewhat unclear as to which one is Bill and which one is Ted.

I must admit that I enjoyed my cinematic marathon, with the three films being sufficiently different from each other to make me feel like I was experiencing many different aspects of what films have to offer. Hopefully the memory will keep me through the dark times in which the cinemas remain closed.

images:

Nocturnal (Scannain: “Wildcard to release Nathalie Biancheri’s Nocturnal in Ireland and UK from September 18th”)

Paul Simonon of the Clash at Victoria Park (Observer: “White Riot review – whistle-stop tour of a 70s London uprising”)

Dude! (entertainment.ie: “The first reviews for ‘Bill & Ted Face The Music’ are in”)

Billie & Thea (Slashfilm: “Bill and Ted Face the Music Shifts Back to August 28 as a New Featurette Shines a Light on Bill & Ted’s Daughters”)

“A White, White Day” (2019)

The first thing you see in this film is a car driving along an Icelandic road before it skids off and rolls down a hill. Quickly it is established that the car contained the wife of Ingimundur, a local police chief, and the film then deals with his grief at her passing and the discovery that she had been having an affair. At first he is just withdrawn and moody, but then he has something of a breakdown and goes on a rampage.

I didn’t really like this film; it just seemed a bit slow, and I am speaking as someone who likes slow films. However, what I did find interesting in our ACAB era was how Ingimundur is able to get away with behaviour that on anyone else’s part would see them sectioned and/or arrested. His being a police chief seems to let him do what he wants without legal or professional repercussions.

Iceland is probably one of those places where there are only five or six actors, so Ingimundur is played by the same actor (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who some years ago played the policeman in Jar City, a more interesting film. They’re not meant to be the same character but I could not but start imagining that they were. I am now wondering how one would stitch them together into an Icelandic cop film universe. This is further complicated by the fact that I saw him on stage once playing Gregor Samsa’s dad in an Icelandic language version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.


image source (RTÉ: A White, White Day’s slow-burn revenge drama)

“And Then We Danced” (2019)

This is a film about Georgian dancers. My beloved and I went to see it, lured by the interest she has in Georgian culture (her entry point being the polyphonic music of that country of the Caucasus). Traditional dance is a big part of the country’s cultural heritage and its self-image, with a surprisingly wide cultural footprint – it is not mentioned in the film, but reputedly the look of Doctor Who‘s Daleks was inspired by the way the long skirted female dancers of a visiting Georgian dance troupe seemed to glide across the floor.

There are no Daleks in this film. Rather it is set in a dance school in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, where things are upset by the arrival of Irakli, a brash new dancer from a provincial town. He and Merab, previously the leading male dancer of the group, are initially rivals, but then they start to practise steps together. The protagonist begins to neglect his dancer girlfriend and next thing the two male dancers are shagging.

One thing established early in the film is that Georgia is a deeply heteronormative country and that a strain of hyper-masculinist homophobia runs through the world of Georgian dance. A conversation between the female dancers reveals that one of the male dancers of the another troupe was kicked out after he was found in a sexual clinch with another man while on tour — but first he was beaten up by the other dancers and then sent off to a monastery to be straightened out (though it is later established that at the monastery this off-screen character was sexually abused by one of the monks, causing him to flee; unable to return home he took to hanging around the circus as a male prostitute).

So the prospects for the two lovers are not great. I found all the scenes of their illicit love excruciating to watch: partly of course such things are challenging to my own sexuality, but here there was more the added fear that at any moment they could be discovered together, which would have led to the most terrible consequences.

And yet, heteronormative Georgia does have its gay counterculture. There is a sequence where Merab finds himself exploring the underground world of Tbilisi’s gay scene, with what seemed like Georgia’s Brett Anderson as his guide. It did seem like fun, with its techno nightclubs and male prostitutes who gave the impression of being good craic even if they are doomed to a problematic life on the margins of society. Nevertheless, the counterculture is precarious: when Merab’s former girlfriend makes her peace with him she says, “There is no future for you here – you will have to leave Georgia”.

So it’s a sad film, though not one ending in brutal tragedy (which is a spoiler, but I think the kind of spoiler that makes people more inclined to see a film as these days no one wants to see films ending with gay blokes being killed or bashed up on account of their sexual orientation). There’s no big dance off where the conservative lords of Georgian dance conclude, “You may be sexual degenerates, but by your dancing ability you have shown yourself to be true members of the Georgian people!”

Beyond the plot, there are lots of great scenes of Georgian dancing, mostly in rehearsals. And there is a good bit of the country’s music, both instrumental (accompaniment for the dancers) and the polyphonic vocal music, which people break into at a couple of party scenes (including the ubiquitous ‘Tsintskaro’, the one Georgian song you have definitely heard (it is extensively sampled and used in film soundtracks). There is at least one supra (a dining event featuring long ponderous toasts about all kind of things). And there are some interesting nods to Georgian history generally, like when Merab’s family’s power is cut off after they miss a bill and his mother says, “God, this is like in Shevardnadze’s time”. There are also some interesting hints about the development of Georgian dance, with the dance instructor at one point mentioning that it was toughened up in the 1970s and made more unambiguously masculine (for the male dancers, obv.).

There is also a bravura quality to the film making that moves it beyond the worthy film about sad gay blokes. This manifests in both the vim of the dance scenes but also in a single shot tracking scene through a wedding party in a flat towards the end. It is also a film of strong performances, from Bachi Valishvili as the cocky Irakli to Levan Gelbakhiani’s more vulnerable Merab, but also Ana Javakhishvili as Mary (dancer and Merab’s girlfriend) and even Kakha Gogidze as Aleko, their traditionalist dance instructor, but they’re not the only ones.

Postscript: my beloved read up a bit on the making of the film. Although filmed in Georgia with Georgian actors, the director Levan Akin is Swedish (though of Georgian extraction) and the filmmaking was difficult, as making a film about gay Georgian dancers would be like heading to Trumpland to make a film about some guys shitting on the Stars and Stripes. So the local authorities were fed a completely different plot for the film (something about tourists visiting Tbilisi and getting up to wacky japes). The film only received a limited release in Georgia and was protested against by the Georgian Orthodox Church, which is extremely conservative on sexual matters but has a central position in Georgian life. I wonder how the film is perceived now… on the one hand it deals with subjects that many Georgians would consider problematic, yet it has also massively raised the profile of Georgian dance worldwide.

image:

Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), and Mary (Ana Javakishvili) (The London Economic — London Film Festival: And Then We Danced)

“Tenet” (2020)

This is the film that was meant to save cinema; we’ll see if it manages to do so. I think this one is best reviewed in a series of bullet points:

  • At times it is a bit hard to follow the plot, not because it is incredibly complicated as such but because the dialogue is often a bit muffled, leading to scenes where things are happening and you find yourself wondering why they are blowing that thing up.
  • That said, the plot once discerned is a bit ludicrous.
  • But the plot is not really worth bothering with as this is basically a film in which loads of kewl things happen, interspersed with scenes of chit chat.
  • Many of the exciting action sequences feature people running backwards, for reasons.
  • I was amused when I discovered that the character played by a guy who looks a bit like Kenneth Branagh actually was played by Kenneth Branagh (I forgot that Christopher Nolan is one of those directors who often gets the same people back in his films).
  • Elizabeth Debicki is very tall and worryingly thin, to the extent that she looks a bit like she should be appearing in one of those old Aeon Flux cartoons as Aeon Flux. As I said, I found her thinness disconcerting but I liked how the film did not try to hide the fact that she is taller than everyone else in the film.
  • It’s probably also worth noting that John David Washington as The Protagonist and Robert Pattinson as his handler are both v suave.
  • People have said that this is Christopher Nolan auditioning to direct a Bond film (one particular fight in a restaurant kitchen struck me as very much like something you would get in one of the grittier Bond films), but frankly I think he would chafe in the formulaic straitjackets required by the next Dr No sequel.
  • Tenet is not pronounced the same way that the crime lord in Fatal Deviation pronounces Bennet (i.e. “Ben-net”), though maybe it would be if the guy who played the crime lord were somehow to have found himself in Tenet.

Did this film save cinemas? I don’t know. Like every film I have seen since the cinemas reopened, the auditorium was pretty empty thanks to social distancing measures, so I struggle to see how even on what now counts as a full house they could be making any money. Though perhaps they are open as a loss leader, keeping people like me interested in seeing films on the big screen so that we will tell our friends and when (if) restrictions are lifted other people will follow our example. I don’t know how well Tenet actually did at the box office – for all it’s big budget appeal, it is a bit of an odd film for Joe Multiplex and I can imagine people not liking it. But I found it reasonably enjoyable and maybe like it more now than I did when I saw it. And it remains the case that while Nolan is not someone who never makes bad films, he is still one of few people working in high budget mainstream films who is trying to push the narrative envelope. In conclusion I recommend this film to anyone who enjoys the big screen experience, if the big screens are still open where you live and the film is still being shown.
images:

The Protagonist, his handler, and some other guy (The Observer: Tenet review – high concept and high stakes)

Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is taller than her husband (Kenneth Branagh) (Digital Spy: Tenet fails Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat in a big, big way)