Sunday, 15 July 2018

From the archive: "Mamma Mia!"

Mamma Mia! is this summer's second film to be not just critic-proof, but quality-proof. Just as Sex and the City didn't even have to pretend to be a film to send a million stiletto heels clacking towards the multiplex, so this filming of the ABBA musical is bound to have the coachloads who saw the stage show pulling up outside the Odeon. Given that no effort has had to be made (nor has been made) to convert theatrical extravaganza into summer hit, the question is: just how bad is Mamma Mia!? As bad as Sex and the City? Amazingly so, yes (and it's shorter). The worst film of the year? Maybe so, because its badness is so much louder than everything else around. It is offensively awful, howlingly woeful, naff beyond belief. This is a film so bad that when Pierce Brosnan launches into his rendition of "S.O.S." - I use rendition in the same sense as the Bush administration - it is, in context, no worse than any other element thereabouts. It's The Da Vinci Code with songs. It's that bad.

The story, for those who really need it, unfolds around a sundappled Greek island. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman on the eve of her wedding, is determined to track down her real father to accompany her down the aisle. To this end, she invites three of the best placed candidates to the hotel she shares with her mother (Meryl Streep). From Sweden, there is roguish sailor Stellan Skarsgård (!); from the US, hunky architect (zzzzz...) Pierce Brosnan; and from the UK, there is the very Colin Firth-like Colin Firth (St. Trinian's and this in the same 12 months: someone needs a new agent). Each gets an opportunity to plead their case for paternity, that is when they're not being drowned out by one of their fellow cast members caterwauling "Money Money Money", "Gimme Gimme Gimme" or "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do".

One cinematic precedent here would be last year's film of the stage musical Hairspray, which turned something from John Waters' self-described vulgar imagination into winning pop. Mamma Mia!, however, goes the other way, using winning pop music as a pretext for the worst kind of vulgarity: blocked toilets, fake tans, divorce-flaunting, randy bartenders, Julie Fucking Walters, TV commercials for Maltesers that are secret trailers for the film (a particularly insidious development), and the singing of a key line in the title number as "just how much I missed ya" rather than "you" - even native Swedish speakers Anni-Frid and Agnetha managed better than that. This vulgarity feeds into (but doesn't excuse) the shoddy filmmaking: the endless clumsy close-ups, the cheap blue-screen backdrops surrounding the villa. And did director Phyllida Lloyd not consider hiring performers who could actually hold a tune?

Of course, we're not meant to be thinking about such things (or thinking about anything), rather sharing in the tremendous fun this cast had being paid to spend two months in the Med. Depending on personal taste, the film will mark either the apex or the nadir of Streep's recent loosening-up: not only does she get to smile and laugh (as she wasn't allowed to between 1978 and 2002), this time, she's given the opportunity to belt out a couple of numbers while wearing dungarees - enough, I'm afraid, to leave me hankering for the old Streep whose daughter was eaten by dingoes. Seyfried, a quirkily appealing presence in films both good (Mean Girls) and bad (Alpha Dog), submits to the general air of wide-eyed, sunkissed blandness; and surely the producers could have done better, in hiring a young male lead to meet the demands of the teenage-girl demographic, than The Escapist inmate Dominic Cooper, whose shifty demeanour and vulpine features suggest his character may well have several body parts in the boot of his Fiat Punto. As for Walters' climactic performance of "Take a Chance on Me": well, celibacy has never seemed more appealing.

The biggest crime Lloyd's film commits - bigger than those it commits against the cinema, good taste, and the paying public - is that it commits against the music that inspired it all. ABBA have always enjoyed a following conscious of the campy-kitschy aspects of their output, but these singles could equally be reclaimed as perfectly crafted three-minute bulletins on the human condition, conveying therein a real sense of joy, loss, heartbreak and abandonment, only a shallow idea of which Mamma Mia! appears to be interested in. (Dare one suggest "The Winner Takes It All" gains not very much in profundity by having Streep wail it at Brosnan in front of a Greek sunset?) Musically, the film comes in somewhere between Moulin Rouge! - which similarly trashed half-a-dozen great pop songs - and the state-sanctioned Great Democratisation of Pop overseen by Chairman Cowell, persuading us that anyone can have a bash, no matter their talents, and so long as someone somewhere stands to make a great deal of money from it. These arrangements smack of those Top of the Pops compilation albums from the 1970s, where the hits were sung (quite poorly) by session singers; camp means never having to admit something's no good.

This is, one suspects, part of the Mamma Mia! experience's appeal: that it should have the recognisable ring of hen-party karaoke, or of something sung into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. On the big screen, however, it just looks like the latest gross reduction of our already falling cultural standards: something intolerably sloppy, hastily repackaged as the feelgood film of the summer. The sad sight of the four ABBA bandmates reuniting for the non-event of the film's Stockholm premiere is topped only by the sight of Benny and Bjorn's cameos in the film itself. To them, I offer my congratulations: in return for a handful of gold coins, they have ensured their music can never again be encountered without the attendant dual whiffs of ordure and fromage. To everyone else, I can only provide the following stark warning: every penny you hand over at the box office for Mamma Mia! will only bring us closer to the movie version of Our House starring Danny Dyer, or of the Queen musical We Will Rock You, starring Russell Brand and Justin Hawkins from The Darkness.

(June 2008)

Mamma Mia! is available on DVD through Universal Pictures; a sing-along version screens on ITV2 today at 4.20pm, ahead of the sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday. God help us all.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 6-8, 2018:

1 (new) The First Purge (15)

2 (1) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***
3 (2) Ocean's 8 (12A)
4 (3) Sicario 2: Soldado (15)
5 (4) Tag (15)
6 (7) Adrift (12A)
7 (8) Patrick (PG)
8 (6) Hereditary (15) **
9 (5) Sanju (15) **
10 (re) Yellow Submarine (U)


My top five: 
1. Vertigo [above]

2. The Piano
3. Summer 1993
4. Whitney
5. Pin Cushion

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
2 (4) Black Panther (12A) **
3 (3) Fifty Shades Freed (18)
4 (6) Darkest Hour (PG) **
5 (2) Finding Your Feet (12)
6 (new) Game Night (15) ***
7 (5) The Shape of Water (15) ****
8 (8) Coco (PG) ***
9 (new) Lady Bird (15) ****
10 (9) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)


My top five: 
1. Sweet Country

2. Lady Bird
3. The Shape of Water
4. 120 Beats Per Minute
5. Game Night

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Bourne Supremacy (Saturday, ITV, 9.55pm)
2. Crank (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
3. Hell or High Water (Sunday, C4, 10.15pm)
4. Wuthering Heights (Sunday, C4, 1.35am)
5. An Ideal Husband (Saturday, BBC2, 2.45pm)

Prickly things: "Pin Cushion"

The contemporary British fairytale Pin Cushion has the look of a particular kind of movie. It has the quirky title; it could engender its own tie-in knitwear line; it features a lot of art direction; and one early shot of kittens in a pet shop window plays as flagrant pandering to that audience that traditionally turns out for that type of movie. What's interesting about it is that the characters from that type of movie are here seen to run up against the unyielding brick wall that is the real world, which gives rise to something more dramatic and affecting - something that doesn't merely come off as cosmetic or cutesy. Writer-director Deborah Haywood shows us exactly why her main characters, a mother-daughter pairing, have wrapped a protective bubble or shawl around themselves, before tempting them to throw it off, for better and worse. In the nondescript provincial town to which the pair have moved - thoughtful location work here - they present as hopeless outsiders: ma Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) a sadsack with a hunched back, her offspring Iona (Lily Newmark) pale and redheaded, prone to spinning tales that suggest she was rescued from a forest in a bid to impress her new school's meaner girls. Iona subsequently turns crueller in her effort to assimilate; it's a development that leaves them both even more vulnerable than they were before.

Thus does the film set out to explore the mother-daughter axis, that long-term site of feminist inquiry, and one that has enabled distaff filmmakers to try and counter the now more than faintly tired father-son tropes of so much Western cinema. The central relationship Haywood draws here reminded me a little of the Saoirse Ronan-Laurie Metcalf scenes in January's Lady Bird: beneath its chunky cable-knits, Pin Cushion is another heartfelt drama describing the process whereby one generation rebels against (yet ultimately has to make some kind of peace with) what's come before, put together by someone who was once a teenage girl but is now a fully-fledged woman, with the perspicacity and distance to see both sides of the coin. (Proposed season: From Greer to Gerwig, in which young female creatives come to terms with the possibility their former role models may some day give into naff, cranky or deeply conservative positions.) I think I should point out - especially given the understandably enthusiastic reviews Pin Cushion has so far accumulated - that this is an odder and bumpier film than its predecessor(s), its eccentricity extending to a tendency to cut away from scenes at the point their internal conflicts could be heightened or deepened.

The whole thing, indeed, runs to just 82 minutes, which is useful if you've got chores to be getting on with, but in an age when Michael Bay can extend individual Transformers movies to a willy-waggling 160 minutes, Pin Cushion well might have supported another ten or twenty, if the budget had allowed for it. As it is, Haywood's ending - a sidestep into another genre, raising more questions than it answers - felt to me a little blunt and underfinessed. What's clear already, however, is that this filmmaker has an eye for a detailed, cinematic image, an acute ear for sound (one lingering impression: the malevolent whispering behind these characters' backs) and a feel for those themes that might engage younger audiences: Iona's blossoming touches upon peer pressure, bullying, low self-esteem, and many of those other things you and I may be relieved to have left behind in our youth. Haywood also displays a sure hand with actors: the newbie Newmark - possessed of that translucent skin the cinema and its DoPs have long venerated, in part as it registers as a window within a screen - capable of projecting a muted sensitivity even when Iona is acting at her most thoughtlessly adolescent, while Scanlan - so good on TV (The Thick of It, Getting On), and an actress apparently possessed of zero vanity whatsoever - makes an indelible figure as she potters and limps around on her lonesome. Unarguably promising.

Pin Cushion is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Another country: "Summer 1993"

Summer 1993 is a film in the illustrious lineage of Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive and Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos, bringing us closer to the present, while demonstrating that Spanish directors haven't lost their near-singular ability to coax great, natural yet remarkably precise performances from very young children; nor their facility for showing us the universe through a child's eyes, and thereby making it seem newly strange and complicated. For practically its entire 97 minutes, Carla Simón's feature debut intends for us to interpret the world as its six-year-old heroine sees and passes through it: we're walking a mile or so of bumpy ground in adorably tiny shoes. That heroine is Frida (Laia Artigas), introduced having a suitcase packed for her and being driven away from her Barcelona home to stay with her aunt and uncle in the Catalan countryside. Why this is happening isn't immediately clear, and we're equally on unfamiliar ground once we arrive at the new place, having to feel our way into this semi-idyllic rural environment much as Frida has to herself. What is certain is that this girl is no longer the #1 priority, for her guardians have their own smaller bundle of joy to oversee; and that the attention she does receive is of the panicky and overprotective variety. As the band 4 Non Blondes were heard to sing around this particular historical moment: what's going on?

We will find out in the course of a film that feels simultaneously highly controlled and yet wholly spontaneous from scene to scene. There are, it turns out, narrative reasons for setting the film in 1993, and Simón has taken care to get the details right, some (Dogtanian on the TV, Cobi - mascot for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics - on a T-shirt) more universal and recognisable than others (a Catalan dinner ritual that involves the passing of napkins, some distinctly localised pop hits). For the most part, however, we're left to watch the farmhouse's junior residents interacting and exploring the house, its gardens and wider surrounds. What Simón has inherited from Erice and Saura is an understanding that untrained youngsters can be tremendous allies when it comes to storytelling: they naturally have the viewer's sympathies, yet when it comes to setting something up or letting slip the clues that will assist in forming and filling in any bigger picture, the right child performers will most often do so in a way that appears guileless, truthful, the very opposite of clunky exposition. Putting little tykes in the foreground also opens up another plane of activity, namely what's going on behind or around them, and in this, Summer 1993 is not so very far removed from the methods of last year's standout American release The Florida Project, another drama of dislocation with an excellent sequence of ice cream-eating.

As Sean Baker did there, Simón allows us, as sentient adults, to intuit a situation while preserving the blithe innocence of the youngsters corralled centre frame; she lets you and I hear just enough of certain conversations while placing warm, protective palms over her juvenile leads' ears. That level of caretaking enabled the Florida movie's astonishing tightrope walk, and though she attempts it in a quieter, less showy fashion - replacing its predecessor's eyepopping colours with the mellow sunshine beneficial for repair and growth - Simón pulls off something not incomparable. Much of the hardest work had to have been done at the casting stage: finding not just these utterly unaffected youngsters, but the trained professionals prepared to go with the flow and interact with the kids on their own terms, while giving the merest hint of the grown-ups' own concerns. There's a terrific performance, viewed mostly in passing, from Bruna Cusi as the aunt: without once overshadowing her younger costars, she subtly conveys how this woman seems to tire with twice the number of charges to watch over, then regains her maternal strength - an arc we catch out of the corner of the eye. Just as the film captures a young life being held in suspension - a transition period, to be remembered forever - so entire scenes hold us in a striking balance: between documentary observation and something more narratively propulsive, between cinema and real life, childish skylarking and harsh experience, and - at the very last - between laughter and tears. The world we enter into is more complex than the bulk of our movies credit; here's one of the few that does that absolutely.

Summer 1993 opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

From the archive: "The Incredibles"

Fifteen years on from his superheroic heyday, Bob Parr - another of Pixar's inspired creations - has become an insurance schlub. His muscle has long since turned to fat; he can barely squeeze into his office partition; what once was a skintight outfit has become a croptop peering over a belly gone slack. A functionary by day - his job a mocking, sedentary reminder of the risks he himself used to take - Bob (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) spends his nights sneaking out to rescue folk from burning buildings using the last vestiges of his special powers, longing for a return to his glory days. Inevitably - the magic of the movies, and all that - something like this comes to pass with the emergence of one Buddy Pine, a.k.a. Syndrome (Jason Lee), a spurned Parr fan threatening to disrupt the status quo. The world's fate soon lies in the hands of Bob and his equally gifted family: Mrs. Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl (superhuman stretchiness), voiced by Holly Hunter; son Dash (superhuman speed), voiced by Spencer Fox; and daughter Violet (superhuman shrinking, perfect for a self-conscious teen who spends her downtime hiding behind her fringe), voiced by Sarah Vowell.

At two hours, The Incredibles is the busiest and longest Pixar production to date, and it's not pushing things to say the company spends much of that time showing off. Director Brad Bird here mixes large-scale, blockbuster-worthy setpieces with wonderful little trompe l'oeil effects and marvellous locations like Mr. and Mrs. Incredible's bedroom, where the attention to even the tiniest CG detail extends to a full-length mirror and the reflective surface of a television set. Ever since the furry animals of Fox's Ice Age, hair has been touted as one of the toughest textures to accurately render with pixels; so, too, water, no matter that Pixar spent almost all of 2003's Finding Nemo beneath the waves. Here, no fuss, we get both together, in a sequence in which Elastigirl, Dash and Violet, having plummeted into the ocean, bob around with wet locks. This is an Elastimovie, forever finding new ways to stretch itself. The humans in the Toy Story movies were perhaps the least convincing - perhaps only unconvincing - aspect of those films. Bird and his team wisely plump for characters governed less by strict photorealism than a caricature form not dissimilar to the every-bit-as-pummelled Weebles of MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch.

The magical transformation that occurs - partly attributable to the design, partly to typically good screenwriting - is that these exaggerated clumps of binary code come to convince as flesh-and-blood creations. Even the minor ones: Parr's boss, a barking, ashen corporate mite, looks as though he'd be played in a live-action remake by William H. Macy impersonating Noah Taylor's Hitler in Max. In some ways, it must be an easier task coming up with human characters than with such leaps of imagination as a fairytale ogre (Shrek, say) or the playthings in the Toy Storys. Yet for The Incredibles to work, an even greater leap has to be made: we have to believe these characters would bleed and hurt if they cut themselves. Amazingly, we do. I wonder if Pixar's approach to non-visual storytelling and characterisation is along the lines of how the company's wireframe boffins go about building these worlds: a layering up, an accretion of detail that permits one creative process to mimic another. 

At its heart, however, The Incredibles is a continuation of the themes of 2003's Finding Nemo, a film about the lengths we go to protect ourselves and our loved ones - and what, in doing so, we prevent ourselves from experiencing. Dash's teacher records his lessons on videotape, as a safety measure; one of the reasons the giant leaps of the kind formerly associated with the Parrs appear to be dying out is that the lawyers are keeping a close eye out for any collateral damage incurred in the process of besting villains and saving lives. You could, if you so choose, read this as a satire on the American way of checks and balances, or as a counterblast to the Homeland Security Act: a parable of responsibility, offering an animated restating that - if they'd only step up to the plate every once in a while - American citizens would be perfectly capable of looking after themselves, without interference from the Government. 

With its heroics unfolding around a sleek Fifties cityscape (special mention: the Parrs' Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home), The Incredibles may also count as the first Pixar movie since Monsters, Inc. that Ayn Rand might have clutched to her chilly bosom. Truly successful fables have the rare knack of being truly universal, offering something for everyone. That's certainly the case with Bird's film, which provides as many thrills as any of the year's live-action movies, alongside cherishable smaller beats - Bob cricking his back into shape during a tussle with an apparently unkillable robot, a fashion queen (styled after Edith Head) who points out the design flaw with capes and keeps a fireplace full of flame-red goldfish - and so much incidental detail you know within five minutes that you're going to buy the DVD to get a better look at it. To want to watch a movie again from scratch within moments of it beginning; a two-hour film that leaves you wanting even more. In this day and age, that's truly incredible.

(November 2004)

The Incredibles is available on DVD through Disney; a sequel, The Incredibles 2, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday, and will be reviewed here in due course.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Winging it: "The Butterfly Tree"

Somewhere inside The Butterfly Tree, an exasperating debut from the Australian writer-director Priscilla Cameron, there's a sensitive, literary study of grief, love and lust readying itself to take flight, but it's been cocooned within a tacky carapace of magic realism that will at best be an acquired taste, and at worst splats the eye with images of excruciating naffness. Cameron's film is set within a household left lopsided by the recent death of its matriarch. College lecturer Al (Ewen Leslie) has attempted to evade his emotional loss via a fling with the most forward of his students, while son Fin (Ed Oxenbould, the rapping child from Shyamalan's The Visit) has built up a shrine to ma in the backyard and a serious insect fetish. Both will fall under the spell of Evelyn (Melissa George), a burlesque artist with an unplaceable, non-Aussie accent and an ever-present set of rollerskates (for it is one of those movies): while pa eyes her up as another putative lay, the lad gets invited inside Evelyn's hothouse to take photos of her boobs, neither party being aware of the other's affections. It's the Bateman-Cera-Isla Fisher farce of recent Arrested Developments, only with even fewer laughs.

While you wait for man and boy to find out and come to blows amid Cameron's tsunami of sixth-form art direction, your responses will be most strongly guided by the film's more outré flourishes: the visions Oxenbould has of computer-generated butterflies sipping water from his belly button, a conversation Al has with his student squeeze (Sophie Lowe) about cock rings, a fantasy in which Evelyn is seen to coax beetles onto her nipples. I'm afraid the film lost this viewer early on, didn't win me back with pillow talk of the calibre of "You can be the baby spider, and you can suckle me", and left me all but swallowing my fist once it turned out Evelyn's fate was to offer the kid his first fondle before succumbing to cancer, the kind of hoarily conservative trope any male writer-director would be nailed to a cross for resorting to in The Year of Our Lord 2018. These ninety-odd minutes retain precisely one moment of recognisable human truth, in describing Al's mounting annoyance with the local council's voice-activated phone system; the rest can be filed under "away with the fairies", with no especially pressing need to chase after it, however big your net.

The Butterfly Tree opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Sunday, 8 July 2018

From the archive: "The Box"

A stranger shows up on your doorstep, scarred from a lightning strike yet otherwise respectable in appearance. He hands you a box with a button on top, instructing that two things will happen should said button be pushed: one, someone somewhere in the world - someone you don't know - will die, and two, you will receive a million dollars in cash for your troubles. ("Tax free," the stranger adds, with a flourish.) Would you push it? Such is the quandary facing married couple Cameron Diaz and James Marsden in Richard Kelly's new thriller The Box, adapted from Richard Matheson's short story Button, Button. It's 1976 when the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives on their doorstep, on the very day Diaz's Sartre-teaching schoolmarm learns her contract is being terminated, and Marsden's NASA engineer has his application to join the astronaut pool turned down. More precise yet, it's Christmas, which means we could read the couple's new toy as the ultimate test of goodwill to all men: initially prepared to push the button if it comes to it, they have second thoughts upon learning that, once deployed, the box will be removed from them and passed onto someone they do not know - thus putting themselves at risk.

We could equally read The Box as a way of bringing the distant horrors of overseas warfare, whether Vietnam, Iraq or even the Cold War, with its own weapons of mutually assured destruction, squarely back home: push a button, soldier, and somebody you've never met perishes. (It makes perfect sense that Langella should come to this from playing Nixon - his character's name doubly significant in this militaristic context - and that Marsden should be so riled by a waiter sending a peace sign his way.) Certainly the world Matheson and Kelly set out is one showing significant signs of trauma even before the box shows up. Diaz has lost several toes in a childhood accident; Marsden fails the astronaut exam on his psych evaluation; there's a sudden onrush of nose bleeds. Even those who aren't dying here are hurting in some way. After 2006's sprawling, uncontrollable Southland Tales - which squandered some of the goodwill this filmmaker had earned with Donnie Darko - it's clear Kelly intends this as a more focused and considered piece of storytelling; he's working his way through that phase of self-indulgence M. Night Shyamalan is still labouring in. (Certain scenes in The Box, involving a motel swimming pool with supernatural properties, recall Shyamalan's mystical misfire Lady in the Water.)

Still, there's no denying the film remains a somewhat erratic experience. Kelly badly fumbles his material after an intriguing first hour, stumbling into an interlude in a celestial library that shifts the narrative onto a higher plain when it might have done better to keep at least one foot on the ground. Where the best material here (the loving recreation of a busy 1970s household, the shadowy presence of National Security agents) apes Spielberg, the least convincing aspires towards Kubrick: Marsden, we discover, has been working on a Mars exploration project with none other than Arthur C. Clarke, and 2001 looks to be the inspiration for the library's multiple-choice stargates. I'd still be tempted to see The Box for the unified ominousness of its first hour - that hard-to-achieve sense that every scene, no matter how throwaway it seems, is somehow key to the whole; that sense that transforms even a humdrum conversation about turning off the Christmas tree lights at night into a matter of life and death. If the middle act drops the ball - and the box, come to think of it - then the tough choices Matheson and Kelly leave their characters with really do stay with you: the film doesn't all work, but it offers few easy ways out of its central conundrum.

(December 2009)

The Box screens on BBC2 tonight at 10.55pm.