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Review: Ray & Liz

The film steers clear of bad-faith miserabilism by virtue of Richard Billingham’s from-the-gut specificity.

3.5

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Ray & Liz
Photo: KimStim

In one of the more striking images from Ray’s a Laugh, British photographer and painter Richard Billingham’s seminal collection of brutally matter-of-fact family portraits, a white cat hovers uncannily in the middle of a dingy living room, no doubt as a result of having been thrown into the air by the old codger seated beneath it. The overall impression is of a moment spliced out of a larger moving whole, and this implicit narrative quality, in which bits of restless action are invested with context by the surrounding domestic spaces, is prevalent through much of Billingham’s photography.

With Ray & Liz, Billingham’s first feature film, the larger cinematic context teased out by the artist’s portrait work is abundantly realized, with a unifying thread being the gritty celluloid and boxy aspect ratio that’s long been his signature. Revisiting and expanding on the autobiographical material of Ray’s a Laugh, Billingham has crafted a film that vividly conjures up the textures, sounds, and sensations of the squalid public housing units of Thatcher-era Britain—in this case, the exact West Midlands tenement apartment where he grew up and spent his formative artistic years. In tackling this sensitive private history of poverty, starvation, alcohol abuse, parental neglect, and forced relocation, Billingham has splintered his narrative across three separate timelines: the late aughts, when Billingham’s father, Ray, was frittering away his final days in a drunken stupor; the late 1980s, when the family lived in the high-rise unit that set the scene for Ray’s a Laugh; and the early ’80s, the final stage of their tenure at a comparatively serene terraced house.

The most recent of these episodes provides the anchoring point from which Ray & Liz’s narrative is structured. Comprising a Beckettian study of stasis, seclusion, and repetition, these scenes, returned to three times throughout the film, depict a feeble-bodied Ray (Patrick Romer) in near-constant supine position inside his cramped bedroom, only occasionally willing his body upright to top off his glass of homebrew or to take in a view of the drab gray municipal district outside his window. Visitors are few and far between, so all that keeps him company is a vintage radio and a stream of decaying memories—two of which become sustained flashbacks branching off from this main story thread, and whose not-exactly-rosy revelations do a great deal to flesh out the psychological state of Ray’s dead-end existence.

The first of these flashbacks, and arguably the weakest chapter in Ray & Liz’s mosaic of memory bits, jumps back furthest in time to dramatize an incident of familial dysfunction that plays out like a particularly grotesque Todd Solondz set piece. An average day at the Billingham home is summarily sketched: Ray (Justin Salinger) mills about in the kitchen; his wife, Liz (Ella Smith), chain smokes and knits by the window; sons Richard (Jacob Tuton) and Jason (Callum Slater) play with their toys; and the family dog looks on. Then, the sequence’s wild card is introduced in the form of Ray’s mentally handicapped brother, Lol (Tony Way), who’s been assigned to watch two-year-old Jason while the parents run errands. And when an unhinged neighbor, Will (Sam Gittins), arrives on the scene and tricks Lol into drinking from the family’s stash of hard liquor, the already hectic status quo is exacerbated by an outpouring of emotional cruelty, physical violence, and puke.

Beyond its potential significance as a site of trauma or as a demonstration of the depths of squalor this family has endured, it’s unclear at first as to why Billingham homes in on this particular day, lending it an almost cartoonish sense of dread that the remainder of Ray & Liz eschews. There’s a bluntness to the representation of abuse and its aftermath that verges on the exploitative (especially as Lol becomes a drunken mess) and a lack of generosity toward the characters. Still, the episode steers clear of bad-faith miserabilism by virtue of its from-the-gut specificity, which extends from the note-perfect production design to the loving insert shots of wall paintings and a pet canary, and by an overall impression that this is an incident that Billingham needs to exorcise. In the heart-wrenching concluding image, which eloquently links young Richard’s compulsion to record his daily life with his mother’s creeping melancholy, that need is palpable.

Back in the older Ray’s amber-hued one-room apartment, the man reflects on a grade-school portrait of Jason, whose youthful wanderings and horseplay become the subject of the film’s second and most moving flashback. In this section, Ray and Liz are nearly absent, with Billingham ceding the stage to the taciturn Jason as the boy scarfs down sandwiches made with pickled red cabbage, drops items on passersby from high above the ground (as well as into his sleeping father’s mouth), and watches daytime television. Mesmerized by the animals he sees on the screen, Jason embarks on a crosstown pilgrimage to the zoo, an adventure his tuned-out parents are completely uninformed about until an eventual visit from child protection officers.

Before this sobering reality check, however, the story centers almost solely on Jason and his bemused encounters with the small world beyond his family’s claustrophobic flat—a gloomy playground of dead trees, dilapidated brick bridges, and rickety chairlifts. When he does get to the zoo, the animals aren’t the majestic beasts seen on the telly, but rather malnourished-looking canines and disinterested seals. He gets lost, finds a bonfire started by fellow schoolboys, and eventually winds up alone in the cold night air. Through it all, Billingham generates some of his most astonishing images and sequences, from an impressionistic firecracker display set to Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie,” to a series of shots detailing Jason’s nervous passage through shadowy side streets at night—all of which is anchored by Slater’s memorably pudgy face and entrancing articulation of Jason’s dazed shyness.

As with the Lol-centered episode, the sequence’s gut punch comes with the reemergence of Ray and Liz, who crucially aren’t condemned for their negligence or bad habits, but rather made to resemble worn-down victims of a government run on welfare austerity. Though not prone to the dreamlike flights of fancy that define Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes, another autobiographical film that hauntingly recreates the gloominess and ephemera of lower-class daily life in small-town Britain, Ray & Liz generates pathos instead through its detailed attention to its characters’ attempts to find permanence and meaning in a fundamentally unstable reality. For all of Liz’s cursing and brashness, she’s endeared to us by her puzzle-making, painting, and knitting—all born out of an implicit desire to generate things of value by hand when monetary value is so hard to come by. And while drinking is often a way to forget, for Ray it seems to be an outlet to remembering. When life is a drudging, dehumanizing crusade, there’s an element of dignity in that.

Cast: Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Patrick Romer, Deirdre Kelly, Tony Way, Sam Gittins, Jacob Tuton Director: Richard Billingham Screenwriter: Richard Billingham Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

3

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Invisibles Is an Awkward Combination of Fiction and Documentary

The film doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide.

2

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The Invisibles
Photo: Menemsha Films

If Schindler’s List and Shoah represent the opposite ends of a spectrum for cinematic representation of the Holocaust, The Invisibles is at the perfect midpoint between those two extremes, combining intimate interviews with cleanly composed, tightly controlled reenactments of the events discussed therein. But in seeking the precise middle ground between the dreadful beauty of Steven Spielberg’s historical melodrama and Claude Lanzmann’s radical privileging of personal testimony over visual representation of suffering, The Invisibles finds a mediated position that’s also decidedly middle-brow.

The basis of director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s film is archival interviews with Holocaust survivors Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, and Hanni Lévy, four of the 7,000 Jewish Berliners who hid within the city even after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it “free of Jews” in 1943. Sheltered by friends, shepherded between members of the limited communist resistance, and in Cioma’s case, maintained in the basement of the Afghan embassy by a network of document forgers, all four managed not only to evade the mass deportations to death camps in Poland, but also to survive the Allies’ incessant late-war bombings of Berlin and the devastating siege of the city that brought an end to the war.

Complementing the subjects’ verbal accounts of their experiences are dramatic reenactments of their lives as “invisibles” in a hostile and dangerous city. Cioma (Max Mauff) is a talented young artist who escapes deportation with his aged parents by forging documents verifying that he’s needed in Berlin as a laborer, eventually managing to eke out a black-market salary from the forgery business. Because his stepfather is a gentile, Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is afforded a bit more time to find a place to hide, ending up masquerading as a cousin to a family of secret Nazi opponents—even occasionally donning a Nazi uniform as part of the act. Ruth and her brother huddle for months with their respective significant others in a single room. And Hanni hides mostly in the open, dying her hair blond and spending her time in the populated commercial area around the famed Kurfürstendamm boulevard.

The four individuals didn’t know each other, and while their stories correspond in certain ways—Ruth and Hanni both adopt disguises, using the omnipresence of mourning women in Berlin to their advantage, whereas Eugen and Cioma must either hide completely or come up with reasons for why they haven’t been called into service—Räfle and co-writer Alejandra López resist staging an arbitrary intersection of the subjects’ lives. While they’re all in the same city, they’re totally isolated, from their families as well as from other young Jews like themselves. “I thought I was the only one,” the real-life Hanni explains as she recounts discovering that 1,500 other young German Jews survived the war in Berlin.

Through its subjects, The Invisibles tells us much about the precarious conditions that they endured during the war, but the staged reenactments show us little that these individuals’ words haven’t already captured. The short bits of drama that Räfle and López compose out of their subjects’ testimony have a cable-documentary quality, both in terms of the excessively neat, stagy sets and the simplicity of the correspondence between the real survivors’ narration and the action depicted. The narrative loosely assembled there has affecting moments—particularly the finale to Ruth’s ordeal, which features a tense confrontation with a Russian soldier—but it never develops its own unique insights or personality.

Missing from the narrativized sections of the film is also a strong sense of environment. We see the cramped corners that the four young people must hide themselves in, but the film is limited in its ability to convey a sense of what Germany’s capital city was like under the constant bombardment that brought an end to the war. Bombings are mentioned but never depicted, except in intermittently deployed archival footage. The Battle of Berlin, when Soviet forces sieged the city and effectively ended World War II, is largely depicted through allusion. The absence of a palpable representation of these events, and of a sense of the city as a whole, is enough to make one wish that the film had simply stuck with the interviews.

The Invisibles’s combination of documentary footage with dramatic conventions doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide. The result isn’t a film that manages to craft out of its staged portions a meaningful and evocative portrait of life lived under the constant threat of death, nor one that, like Shoah, gives itself over fully to the harrowing stories of survivors.

Cast: Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, Hanni Lévy, Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras Director: Claus Räfle Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López Distributor: Menemsha Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Myth and Reality Are Smartly Tangled in The Kid Who Would Be King

Joe Cornish’s film is vigilant in its positivity and hope for the future at nearly every turn.

3

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The Kid Who Would Be King
Photo: 20th Century Fox

In modern-day London, 12-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is thrust into combating forces both global and intensely personal. Following an animated prologue that briefly recaps the legend of King Arthur, the opening shot of Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King pans over a series of newspapers, each with headlines preaching doom and gloom while overlying audio from various news programs informs us of the widespread rise of authoritarian strong men. This is the only direct glimpse we’re given of the current chaos of our political climate, but it looms large over the film’s events as the focus shifts to young Alex, who finds himself with more immediate problems to confront.

At his new school, Alex and his best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), a goofy but sweet pushover, are quickly targeted by the most notorious bully in the yard, Lance (Tom Taylor), and his loyal minion, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Acutely aware of his status as one of the most “insignificant” and “powerless” kids at school, Alex fights back against his tormentors, tackling Lance from behind, only to later be scolded by the school principal (Noma Dumezweni): “The world is not going to change. It’s you who has to change.”

It’s meant as a condemnation of Alex’s violent reaction to aggression, but the woman’s
empty platitude also serves as a motto for the scarcely effective adult leadership in Alex’s life. Indeed, the boy’s principal is incompetent, his father abandoned him as a child, and his mother (Denise Gough), caring as she may be, seems incapable of truly listening to him. Adults have let the world turn to shit and Alex is quickly learning that they’re not particularly well-equipped to protect him or fix the very problems they’ve allowed to fester and multiply.

When Alex soon discovers a sword stuck in concrete, The Kid Who Would Be King shifts gears into a full-on adventure fantasy akin, though never beholden, to ‘80s kids’ adventure films like The Goonies and The Neverending Story. Cornish layers familiar forms with new meanings, amending an age-old tale to directly address the perilous and uncertain future that today’s youth must face. In doing so, the director’s postmodern re-imagining of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table retains a refreshing earnestness in both its unwavering sincerity and commitment to lending its characters an affecting emotional vulnerability.

The film’s humor doesn’t stem from ironically mocking stodgy, centuries-old mythology, but from richly rewarding character details mined from children grappling with an increasingly terrifying world. Cornish retains the framework of Arthurian legend while connecting its themes to the struggle of the disenfranchised to forge bonds with their equally oppressed enemies. In The Kid Who Would Be King, the myth of King Arthur becomes entangled with reality—and a catalyst for self-actualization. Here, adventure empowers Alex and his friends to apply lessons from the past to the challenges that await them moving forward.

As Alex and Bedders discover the responsibilities they must shoulder as a result of Alex pulling Excalibur from the stone, the two convince their former foes, Lance and Kaye, to help them take on the fiery skeletons on horseback that arise from the underworld under the command of the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Along with the extremely verbose and awkward Merlin (played by the hysterically precocious Angus Imrie in his 16-year-old form and by Patrick Stewart whenever the magician is in his dotage), the group sets out across England to find the portal that will take them to Morgana. But even as the group battles Morgana’s demons along the way, they continue to struggle with the ever-present fears and insecurities of adolescence.

In one of many inventive grace notes, Cornish has all of London’s adults vanish at night whenever Morgana’s army arises, leaving the kids to literally fend for themselves as they adapt to their newfound roles as both protectors and shapers of the future. And despite its relatively bleak view of the present, The Kid Who Would Be King is vigilant in its positivity and hope for the future at nearly every turn. Cornish’s film meets a world full of bullies, thieves, and malevolence with a warmth and pureness of heart that’s evident in everything from the inclusivity of its casting and its offbeat sense of humor to its thrilling, galvanizing finale, which sees Alex’s entire school takes up arms in an epic battle against Morgana.

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Denise Gough Director: Joe Cornish Screenwriter: Joe Cornish Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 120 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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