My take on Thunder Road and Papi Chulo

I love the way this film shows up how the constraints of convention and normalcy are so  damaging to the psyche. Jim Cummings wrote, directed and stars in this cracker of a film about a Texan cop, Jim Arnaud, lost in grief after the death of his mother. Following his divorce he’s desperate to gain at least shared custody of his small daughter but attempts to overcome his pain and guilt bring him further to a certain brink of instability. The court decides against awarding him any sort of custody.

Thunder Road is, of course, a song by Bruce Springsteen, the lyrics comprise an invitation to take a road trip, take a risk, since the dreams you thought you held dear have probably not materialised. The road trip could be metaphor for a last shot at a relationship. In any case, it was Jim’s mum’s favourite song. He wants to play it at her funeral but technology fails him. Instead, he dances.

Thunder Road

Jim Cummings and Kendal Farr in Thunder Road

Is Texas one of those places where it’s illegal to hang washing outside? I believe that in some parts of Texas it’s illegal NOT to own a gun. Jim’s part of Texas is a place where unconventional behaviour like dancing at your mother’s funeral is treated with deep suspicion and misunderstanding. Jim tries to conform to traditional male ways of thinking and behaving, including hauling a young woman out of a car where she’s making out with a couple of guys. His inadequacies when it comes to dealing with his emotions lead him to the threat of violence bordering on actual violence. Will he get to be the hero of his own life? Jim is a rescuer but can he save himself?

Masculinity fails men, and without any sort of preaching, this film makes that point clear.

Similar themes are explored in the very feel-good, very adorable film Papi Chulo, which opened the Melbourne Queer Film Festival last month. Papi Chulo explores the isolation of a man grieving the loss of his lover. Both films, while exploring the interior world of a man bereft, show how social norms so deeply inhibit our attempts to be true to ourselves.  Westerners are not, men especially, well-resourced to navigate experiences of loss. Both films enjoy refreshingly original humour and stand as odes to imperfection. Neither film gives its male protagonist a deep or affecting connection with women; so what saves men? Themselves, and other men, along with creative self-expression.

Highly recommend both movies. See them if you can. 

Papi Chulo

Alejandro Patino and Matt Bomer in Papi Chulo

When Hands Touch

UK director Amma Assante prefaces her new film, When Hands Touch, with a quote from James Baldwin, setting the film’s serious tone. Assante, as she did with 2013’s Belle and 2016’s A United Kingdom, takes a personal story of an inter-racial relationship and places it in a broader historical context, informing the story with an examination of surrounding structural and social prejudices. And, as with the other two, When Hands Touch was made to be popular, with an anxious need to appeal to the mainstream. Is Assante afraid that her bold political concerns are a bit much for audiences?

Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), is the bi-racial child of Kerstin (Australia’s Abbie Cornish), who’s also the mother of a young boy from a white German father. Kerstin removes her family to Berlin to prevent her daughter undergoing a forced sterilisation, which was the Third Reich’s way of dealing with the problem of Germany’s 500 or so mixed-race children known as the ‘Rhineland Bastards’. These children were born to German mothers by French soldiers of north African birth stationed at border areas of Germany after WWI.  (There was a total black population of 20,000–25,000 in Germany at the time.)

We are introduced to Leyna in voice-over telling us how everything changed for her the year she turned 16. One of the first things you notice about this film is the speech patterns. Everyone speaks a formal English with vaguely Germanic intonation and sentence structures. I found this annoying and distracting; it seems to inhibit the actors too, they tend to make pronouncements instead of relating naturally to each other.

In Berlin, Leyna meets Lutz (George MacKay), proud member of Hitler Youth and keen to demonstrate heroism for the Fatherland on the battlefield. Lutz is the son of SS officer Heinz (Christopher Eccleston), who has his own views about the clamour for war being whipped up by Hitler along with mandatory demonstrations of  patriotism. Heinz listens to Billie Holiday records in secret. Leyna is confident of her identity as a German woman but as society divides itself, falling into Nazi party lines, despite not being Jewish she comes to realise how unsafe she is. She and Lutz are drawn to each other as the known world falls apart.

The attachment between Leyna and Lurtz is a formulaic portrayal of blossoming love: the obligatory bicycle rides, walks through the woods, sharing of secrets … The couple sits on a hill with a view over the town, discussing big ideas. Leyna is the first woman of colour Lutz has seen and he tells her about his father’s secret collection of Billie Holiday records. He gives Leyna a ring from his dead mother, a token that assumes significance later in the film.

When Hands Touch is a historical romance, nicely done, but its conventional approach makes the film more of an exercise in good taste than something that grabs the gut. In representations of Nazi Germany, certain images are now over-familiar: lines of Jews with their suitcases, Nazi soldiers pushing Jews into lines, the herding of people onto trains, interior scenes with the radio on in the background, images of soldiers’ feet marching to indicate an army on the move, the ground beneath the feet changing from spring grass to dry brown to snow to show the passage of time … The scenes of the camp (filmed on the Channel Islands) are duotone, all blue-grey and brown, almost prettily so.

When Hands Touch doesn’t deliver the romantic ending you’d expect, but the story is  tied up nicely.

You can’t go wrong making a film this way, but with such excellent subject matter you could create something unforgettable. When Hands Touch is memorable for presenting events of Nazi Germany from a new point of view and giving us characters with unusual dilemmas, but not for a deeply felt emotional experience.

Three and three quarter stars







drama of police car lights

Woken up last night by the flashing of red and blue lights over the road. It’s not unheard of for the police to be checking out whoever and whatever is going in the units over the road, but it’s not often they’ve got their lights going. It’s a scene we see regularly in film and on TV. I got up to have a squizz. The front door is one of those early mid-century doors with textured glass panels; the glass is all raised pointy diamonds and the lights flashing through created tiny bar shaped shadows in the glass. The effect of these and the flickering colours was dramatic, at least for me seeing me this in real life.  It must be a challenge when making a work for screen to portray the sight of police lights in a fresh way.


Isn’t It Romantic

If you aren’t in the mood for a rom com but are in the mood for something fluffy, light and romantic but not quite as stupid as a rom com, Isn’t It Romantic is your choice. You get a film that deconstructs rom coms while actually being a rom com. Perfect. Rebel Wilson does her thing as kooky earthy Aussie chick Natalie who gives her bestie at work a lecture on the false premise of rom coms. Bestie is played by the stunning Betty Gilpin, Liberty Belle in Glow, charismatic comedy actor extraordinaire; unfortunately hers is only a tiny part. Early scenes have chubby child Natalie watching Pretty Woman with Jennifer Saunders as her mum trying to put on an Aussie accent (this bit’s funny) and telling her that these kinds of stories never happen to ‘girls like us’. Mum never spells out exactly why not and nor does the film, because you don’t want to start unpacking classism, sexism and body image, erotic capital or lack thereof and misogyny in a rom com.

Natalie scorns romance. The lack of interest on the part of fellas, we assume, comes from the fact that she’s too fat and too smart. (Hey, it worked for me!) Natalie’s career isn’t going anywhere cos everyone takes her for granted, except nice guy Josh (Adam Devine).

The she receives a bump on the head in the subway and wakes up in an impossible dream in a a bright shiny New York smelling sweet with cupcakes* and flowers on every corner, in a dream where she ‘s impossibly rich and successful and the impossible wealthy hunk (Liam Hensworth (whose voice doesn’t match his abs, but who’s listening), flies her off to the Hampton in his ‘copter. Nice guy Josh gets to have a romance with the impossibly gorgeous swimwear model/’yoga ambasssador,’ Priyanka Chopra.  Neighbour (Brandon Scott) turns into bitch-queen gay best friend, a funny deconstruction of another trope.

The awakening of Natalie comes after her realisation and declaration that the one she must love is herself! Then another bonk on the head and voila! Back to grimy reality, thank God.  But now she’s no longer everyone’s coffee bitch. The final reveal scene between her and Josh back in the office is nicely done. 

The message of the film is that Natalie’s the one who’s not available to love due to having her defences up. Not (see above). This film isn’t only for women, it is also for the ordinary nice guy possibly in danger of becoming an incel. Just be patient, Nice Guy, and for the love of God, stay nice. 

Isn’t It Romantic put me in a good mood. If you like this, you’ll like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, also on Netflix, similar humour, similar themes, next level up.

*Cupcakes. Penny Arcade, native New Yorker and powerful deconstructor of aspirational heteronormative culture, performed a show in the Spiegeltent here in Melbourne a few years ago. New York is no longer NY, she said, and the ultimate symbol of the gentrification and homogenisation of her city is the cupcake.

The Clock

Spent two and a half hours this afternoon mesmerised by The Clock, screening at ACMI til March 11. This video compilation was made back in 2010.  The experience of literally watching time pass (as in seeing the hands of clocks and watches clicking over the hour), being so conscious of time passing  (being reminded every minute of what time it is while watching), yet feeling a sense of timelessness, is unique. It’s somewhat surreal. The montages are blended into each other so beautifully.  The word ‘segue’ (insert own accent), if it hadn’t already existed, would have needed to have been coined to describe this cinematic installation: a masterpiece of around 1440 segues.  The Clock gives us scene and sound editing at their very most excellent.

I’ve been advised not to use words like ‘gleeful’ in reviews or essays. But seeing this video montage is a gleeful experience. There’s glee in correctly guessing which scene will come up at 5 pm in The Clock (yes, you know it), and in recognising forgotten scenes from so many movies you’ve seen.

If you read Patrick Susskind’s Perfume, you’ll go about telling people that you’ll never take your sense of smell for granted again. You become olfactorarily sensitive as a result of reading this novel, at least for a while. Watching The Clock (ho ho) makes you conscious of time in a similar way, you develop a temporal acuity.  I’ll be looking out for clocks and watches in everything I see on screen from now on. And how they’re used in the story. There are clocks a plenty in train stations, offices, bars, hotel lobbies, and on bedside tables. Big Ben comes up over and over. Many many watches, usually on wrists but not always, plenty are smashed on the ground.

Time constraints create strong stakes in stories. Time is something we think we never have enough of, our small anxieties about not having enough time in our daily lives in our busy culture is a ruse we have created to avoid thinking about how little time we have in life, anyhow. We’ll be dead soon. Speaking of which, Jade of Death is a web series on YouTube by Aussie chick Erin Good about a young woman with a sinister superpower. If you could discover the time of your death, would you? It’s a stylish goody.

Am going back to ACMI tomorrow to sit and gaze at The Clock, or at least the hours outside 2pm til 5 pm. Watching it put me in a cheerful mood. Something to do with being reminded of the shared experience of cinema, I guess.

Other things to notice: lots of white people, not so many brown. Many more men than women. Quelle surprise. Whose stories are deemed important? But hey, times are changing…