Friday, 21 July 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 14-16, 2017:

1 (new) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***

2 (2) Despicable Me 3 (U)
3 (1) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
4 (new) Cars 3 (U)
5 (3) Baby Driver (15) **
6 (new) The Beguiled (15) ***
7 (4Transformers: The Last Knight (12A)
8 (new) Jagga Jasoos [above] (12A)
9 (5) Wonder Woman (12A) ***
10 (6) All Eyez On Me (15)


My top five: 
1. Victim

2. David Lynch: The Art Life
3. The Tree of Wooden Clogs
4. The Beguiled
5. War for the Planet of the Apes

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (new) Sing (U) ***
3 (1) Passengers (12) **
4 (2) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
5 (4) Lion (12) ***
6 (3Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
7 (re) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12)
8 (re) Patriots Day (15)
9 (5) Assassin's Creed (15)
10 (8) Moonlight (15) ****


My top five: 
1. The Lost City of Z

2. Neruda
3. Heal the Living
4. Certain Women
5. The Other Side of Hope

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Maps to the Stars (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. Megamind (Saturday, BBC2, 8.35am)
3. Legally Blonde (Sunday, five, 3.45pm)
4. Hope Springs (Wednesday, C4, 2.20am)
5. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Saturday, BBC1, 3.30pm)

Keyboard warrior: "Scribe"

Scribe - the rather prosaic English name for what was originally titled La Mécanique de l'Ombre - arrives as another of those efficient timewasters the French cinema occasionally dispatches our way: for at least half an hour, it's essentially a man sat at a typewriter, and you may find yourself wondering if it took director Thomas Kruithof and co-writer Yann Gozlan that long to knock the idea out. In narrative terms, c'est une espèce de Conversation: François Cluzet (go-to guy for these thrillers since the international success of 2006's Tell No One) plays Duval, an alcoholic wash-up handed what he takes to be a midlife career boost transcribing a series of surveillance recordings for shadowy suit Denis Podalydès; what begins as a benign moneyspinner breaks bad once our hero twigs these chats have something to do with an upcoming election, and the murder of a prominent Arab businessman.

To its credit, the film sets out into what's now unfashionable, neo-Hitchcockian territory, landing as vaguely exotic at a moment when British crime thrillers are almost exclusively thick-eared, meat-and-potatoes affairs, lacking the GCSEs required for subterfuge. Cluzet gives it his usual rumpled gravitas, and Kruithof affixes each scene with a patina of style, seeking out crepuscular Parisian locations while shooting ominous close-ups of tape passing over recorder heads as the plot unfolds. Yet from the midpoint on, that plot doesn't thicken so much as drastically thin, the tension dissipating with the appearance of every new stern-faced figure entering shot to reveal a little bit more of the conspiracy. As a calling-card movie, it does just enough to catch the eye, but not enough to hold it: where the very best paranoid thrillers lodge in your gut and assume the weight of personal or national tragedy, Scribe passes altogether briskly through the system, dealing not so much in obsession as distraction.

Scribe opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on August 7.    

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The snapper: "Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock"

Shot!, a portrait of the legendary rock photographer Mick Rock, is everything you might expect from a Vice Films production directed by someone called Barnaby: lots of filters, cameos from Karen O and Father John Misty, and a fidgety, ADD-ish shooting and editing strategy in which any evidence of music-biz hedonism gets prioritised over compositional analysis or the finer points of its subject's creative philosophy. For a while, at least, it's lively enough. A framing device finds yer actual Rock (his real name, conveniently) watching over an actor recreating a cocaine-induced heart attack he had in the early 90s, thereby enabling a life to flash before our eyes; the snapper, it transpires, has tales to tell, usually in colourful language, about the kind of people we might still want to hear about. Cue the images: of Syd Barrett and David Bowie (an image - or rather a series of images - just waiting to be photographed); of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (marginally less curmudgeonly around Rock than he was with the rest of the world); of Freddie (whom Rock shot as though he were Dietrich), Debbie ("the Monroe of pop", and an obvious gift to any photographer) and Meat Loaf (less so).

There's value to sitting Rock down and getting his thoughts on the record: he wandered onto this scene just as rock was being revolutionised and weaponised in the late 1960s, exploding across TV screens and teenage bedroom walls in full colour. He can just about get away with describing himself as the Goebbels of this movement, one charged with overseeing the music's visual propaganda wing, because so many of the images director Barnaby Clay puts on screen back this claim up: looking again at the young Bowie fellating the neck of Mick Ronson's guitar, it's evident that something new, thrilling and/or threatening was going on at this moment on these stages. (Lock up your sons and your daughters.) Old heads will doubtless be satisfied; for non-nostalgics, however, the trouble will be that those images increasingly speak louder than anything else in Shot!. Certainly, Rock's own, blokey commentary settles into a droning monotone after a while, running through a list of names that passed before his lens on their way to immortality or obscurity; the absence of other perspectives - no musicians, no critics, no picture editors - comes to be all too keenly felt.

Shot! is very Vice Films in its underlying insistence that experience is everything, and context for pussies: Clay's interview technique appears to have been simply to goad Rock into giving up one tale of excess after another, up until the point where the narrative arc demands he address the sorry toll coke took on his subject's output, a precipitous descent into paranoia, debt, ill health and - at what was surely his lowest point - directing promos for the likes of Ace Frehley and Mötley Crüe. As we rejoin him today, Rock cuts a lean if lived-in figure, inhabiting a healthier if necessarily circumscribed and far less decadent place in the universe: he's a survivor, which makes him of interest, but Clay often seems far too much in his thrall to spot the absurdity Rock is capable of, and thus the absurdity he threatens to tip the whole project into. Watching the photographer spinning about and performing headstands in his studio before a shoot, or making loftily serious pronouncements about the mind-body connection, you begin to realise just how musicians rub off on their chroniclers, and how close Simon Day and Rhys Thomas's Brian Pern spoofs got to la-la rock reality.

Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock tours selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Man about the house: "The Beguiled"

On paper, or on the Internet, or wherever it was you first encountered it, this would have presented as at the very least an intriguing idea: Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) bringing her delicate sensibility to bear on The Beguiled, the pulpy Thomas Cullinan novel published in 1966 and filmed by Don Siegel as a Clint Eastwood vehicle in 1971. Though that earlier adaptation still holds up as a rollicking, close-to-the-knuckle entertainment, it really is a raw steak of a movie, lusty, gory and gaudy, off-colour even when it isn't being openly incorrect - very much the work of a male actor-director pairing seeing just what they might be allowed to get away with in an era of newly relaxed censorship and incipient women's lib. (Further context: Eastwood filmed it the same year he made Dirty Harry and Play Misty for Me. The guy was on a roll back then, and nothing was going to stop him.) The welcome surprise is the extent to which Coppola succeeds in shaping her own distinct film from this material: lighter, ironised, unarguably tidier and more PC, but equally striking and involving, and affecting in a way its predecessor wasn't.

The set-up is exactly the same. In Virginia in the year 1864, with the Civil War raging within earshot but just beyond the frame, a wounded Yankee soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell, in the Eastwood role), is pulled out of the woods by a pupil of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a sanctuary of sorts, left untouched by the surrounding conflict and populated by a small coterie of easily flustered Southern belles. It's within the Seminary that the two films' emphases begin to deviate. As their mutually braided hair establishes, Coppola's young ladies are as much of a girl gang as, say, the sisters in The Virgin Suicides or Marie-Antoinette and her attendants, and this telling is naturally a little more interested in their individual personalities - bored, curious, dreamy, uptight - than were Don and Clint. Their narrative developed along the lines of a ripe joke, a cackling cautionary tale about a pussyhound tripping over his own dick, such as might be burped across a table to a drinking buddy in some smoky watering hole: the girls were to some degree interchangeable, and secondary.

Coppola, for her part, approaches this story as though it were a teachable moment - a lesson in the games the sexes play, and continue to play. (Its ideal partner in any future double-bill wouldn't necessarily be the Siegel film, rather Catherine Breillat's take on the Bluebeard legend.) When McBurney rouses from his injuries, he realises he's on easy street so long as he presents different sides of his character to - or plays different roles for - those young ladies who are of an age to respond: showing a tantalising glimpse of flank, while dropping hints he might usefully be kept around as a gardener and companion, to the practically inclined Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, nicely eerie); recasting himself as a romantic adventurer for the schoolmarmy Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); offering a bit of rough to restless teen Alicia (Elle Fanning). Soon enough, everyone's competing to give him an extra dollop of cream on his apple pie and a song at his bedside, the tension - narrative, erotic - building until the point these girls themselves wake up to the fact this sharp-tongued charmer (and the casting of the ever-more-assured Farrell as the ultimate fuckboy counts as a minor stroke of genius) is, in fact, a snake in some very long and untended grass.

That gets Coppola's film two-thirds of the way towards where it's going; only in its final act does it start to feel a little like pale imitation. This director is au fait with the sex and sensuality written into this narrative - witness the tremendous moment when Farrell scatters the buttons of Dunst's dress in a climactic eruption of lust - but she gets squeamish around the violence the author intended as its equal and opposite effect. Coppola doesn't so much blanch as avert her eyes altogether in the run-up to the book (and the first film)'s key scene: let's just say a cut stands in for a cut, as though the filmmaker had been charged with composing her own inflight variation of these images. Much else about the concluding thirty minutes feels a touch hesitant or choppy: for all their blunt force, it's Siegel and Eastwood who seemed more inclined to linger over these final few pages, savouring every last bite of Cullinan's decidedly chewy punchline. Still, by then, Coppola has drawn enough elegant parallels and landed enough points for The Beguiled not to feel entirely self-sealed and cut off from the rest of the world, as many of this director's films have.

Granted, with the assistance of blue-chip collaborators (regular production designer Anne Ross, The Grandmaster cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, electroheads Phoenix), Coppola cultivates a hothouse atmosphere within the Farnsworth Seminary dorms, but it's especially amusing to watch The Beguiled in the wake of the debate the film has sparked in the corridors of Film Twitter - for here, surely, is that forum's perfect mirror image: boys trying to impress (or impress themselves upon) girls, girls ganging up to shut boys down, everybody winding up somewhere between 75-80% more overheated than they need to be, or than might be good for anybody's health. It's hard not to think Siegel and Eastwood took on Cullinan as a dare, egging each other on to do or say or show something nasty; Coppola is on to something else in this book, holding the Civil War at bay some distance beyond the Seminary's gates - which, for better or worse, takes the issue of race off the table - and instead reframing Cullinan's tale as a continuation of a longer-running battle, one still raging on paper, on the Internet, elsewhere. As the 2017 Beguiled's magnificently melancholy closing image makes palpable, this is a battle nobody can ever really win.

The Beguiled is now showing in selected cinemas. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

From the archive: "Victim"

Although it's hardly Bruce LaBruce, Victim was considered shocking back in 1961 for its treatment of (the then-illegal matter of) homosexuality; today, it looks both groundbreaking and fascinatingly awkward, obliging its audience to insinuate and extrapolate that which the film's network of well-spoken gays can only hint at. Dirk Bogarde is the high-flying lawyer whose wings are clipped when his past - and, more specifically, ties to a dead (rent?) boy - embroils him in a plot to blackmail London's queer community. Shot mostly on location by Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp), this has the gritty, noirish feel of late 50s British urban cinema, but also a strain of drawing-room debate in which Bogarde's "outsider", assuming the role of detective, adopts a more aggressive and antagonistic line of questioning than your average copper, provoked by the social mores of the time. The script - by Janet Green and John McCormick - can feel a little too hung up on notions of "normal" and "abnormal" (Bogarde's wife Sylvia Syms runs a clinic for delinquents) for it to entirely convince nowadays, but you keep spying flickers of all those issues later queer cinema would find itself working through: a strain of virulent self-hatred that Bogarde pushes to the max ("Nature played me a dirty trick") and a genuinely edgy, uncomfortable response to women. Syms has a slightly more complex characterisation than one might expect, but the turncoat's a bitter harridan with a neurotic disgust of pretty much everyone, especially the sad, lonely men classed as criminals at the centre of the piece. 

(April 2000)

Victim returns to selected cinemas this Friday.

Monday, 17 July 2017

1,001 Films: "The Muppet Movie" (1979)

Muppets assemble. The Muppet Movie constitutes one of the most purely fun and touching origin stories the movies have ever given us, and you can get a feel for the essential Kermit-esque sweetness of Jim Henson and collaborators from the juxtaposition of the first reel's rowdy framebreaking business - the chaos that attends a screening of a film we ourselves are about to see - with the entirely unmediated sweetness of a song like "The Rainbow Connection": there's a loyal and true heart beating behind these frantically reconfiguring jazz hands. As Kermie heads from his swamp home to Hollywood - driven less by the prospect of becoming rich and famous than by a desire to "make millions happy", as he and Henson surely have over the years - he turns not just one into many, but the fragile hopes and dreams expressed in that opening number into tangible big-screen reality.

It's hard not to see the carnival that follows as Henson's attempt, through writers Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl and director James Frawley, to dramatise his own struggles for artistic independence: the malevolent interventions of fast-food maven Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), obsessed with getting his mitts on Kermit's legs, are recognisably those of a system keen to eat unwary creatives up. Other elements have worn a little less well. That writing can feel as episodic as latter-day kids' films; the novelty of its celebrity cameos has lessened over time as its human faces have faded or died off; and Paul Williams' songs aren't as consistently hummable as they were in the later The Muppet Christmas Carol. The freewheeling irreverence of some of its pageantry does, however, make it very much a Muppet movie for the decade of Nashville (Elliott Gould is on hand, to seal the comparison), while the full-body Muppets - Kermit on bicycle, Gonzo pulled away by balloons - remain somehow indefinably funny.

The Muppet Movie is available on DVD through Disney.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

1,001 Films: "The Jerk" (1979)

Remember when Steve Martin movies were properly funny, rather than withering tests of endurance; when he appeared to be fully engaged with the business of making grown-ups laugh, rather than simply trying to steal off with nine-year-olds' pocket money in order to fund his private art collection? The comedian's later movies would take the American dream several times more seriously than anyone but the least discerning of pre-teens could tolerate. The Jerk, on the other hand, holds up as Candide rewritten by the staff of MAD magazine, charting the rise and fall (and rise again) of Navin Johnson, "born a poor black child" after his actual parents abandon him on the front porch of a Mississippi shack. The quintessential American naif, Johnson becomes a millionaire after he invents a device that makes it easier to remove one's spectacles, but is destined to be brought low by his own director - this being Carl Reiner, cast in the once-in-a-lifetime role of "Carl Reiner The Celebrity".

Despite trace evidence of a tattiness that suggests a film rushed into production to exploit the popularity of its hot-potato star, it's less sketchy than you might remember, operating chiefly on the same zingy, how-did-we-get-here? logic that subsequently underpinned many of the best Simpsons episodes. A typically inspired stretch starts with Navin's delight at being included in the phone book ("I'm somebody!"), builds with the arrival of mad sniper M. Emmet Walsh, and concludes with Navin being pursued by the latter into a fairground where he will be deflowered by a trick motorcyclist. Throughout, Martin tempers his wild-and-crazy-guy stage persona - which could well have grown wearisome over the longer haul - with an optimism and sweetness (strumming a banjo along a beach to woo cosmetologist Bernadette Peters) which seems doubly touching in the face of a world perpetually indifferent to the fortunes of a Navin Johnson. Forrest Gump would later play similar material straight, without much in the way of satire or absurdity; The Jerk manages all that, plus elements of tragedy and social comment, and as fondly remembered Seventies studio comedies go, it's far sharper in the points it raises about race and privilege in America than the altogether scattershot Blazing Saddles. The bonus is that it's frequently hilarious: "Hey mister, don't call that dog Lifesaver. Call him... Shithead."

The Jerk is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.