Friday, 19 September 2014

"Wilde Salomé" (The Guardian 19/09/14)

Wilde Salomé ***
Dir: Al Pacino. With: Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain, Kevin Anderson. 95 mins. Cert: 15.

The documentary accompanying Salomé sets about its task with a recognisably protean energy we might call Pacinoid. Historical biography is peppered with snapshots of the inherent craziness of simultaneously staging a play, filming the play, and then making a making-of of the filming; dramatisations of Wilde’s final days of freedom, featuring Jack Huston as Bosie and Pacino in a dead-badger wig as Oscar, jostle with literary powwows (Stoppard on Bosie: “He was a shit”) and – Bono warning – the thoughts of Bono. Too much chaos ultimately prevails, but the rehearsal sequences at least forsake vapid luvvieisms for close, instructive study of how to pull the best out of actors and text alike. As in 1996’s Looking for Richard, Pacino makes a funny, inquisitive, self-mocking guide, whether dragging camels through the desert or pointing finger guns at Scarface-quoting students: we may now be able to forgive him those godawful broadband adverts. 

Wilde Salomé screens with Salomé, and a Pacino-Stephen Fry Q&A, in selected cinemas this Sunday.

"The Giver" (The Guardian 19/09/14)

The Giver ***
Dir: Phillip Noyce. With: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep. 97 mins. Cert: 12A

This week’s young adult contender reroutes Divergent via Pleasantville. In a monochrome post-apocalyptic community arranged along comfortingly bland lines by nannying elder Meryl Streep, odd-teen-out Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lands an apprenticeship with The Giver (Jeff Bridges), a maverick historian-cum-psychic deployed to filter out more colourful memories of the old world and thus keep citizens in blissful ignorance. Jonas’s quest to broach the city limit clunkily labelled “The Boundary of Memory” rushes through terrain The Truman Show explored in greater emotional and philosophical depth, yet much of Phillip Noyce’s film has been conceived with a comparable artistry and attentiveness: one resplendent Turneresque skyline here is more vivid than a half-dozen concrete-grey Hunger Games. It makes for one of this overcrowded field’s stronger entries, refusing to redact entirely the baby-slaying weirdness that permits Lois Lowry’s source novel its multiplicity of grown-up readings: even the designated terminology of “Giver” and “Receiver” carries certain properly adult connotations.

The Giver opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Think Like a Man Too" (The Guardian 19/09/14)

Think Like A Man Too *
Dir: Tim Story. With: Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union, Wendi McLendon-Covey. 106 mins. Cert: 12A

The full-throttle assault on reason, taste and human dignity that is this sequel to 2012’s sisters-versus-playas romcom lays on a Vegas reunion for a set of now-married or engaged characters almost everyone save the Sony beancounters had left behind. Overcompensating for an absence of honest gags, Tim Story cranks everything – soundtrack, stag party lo-jinks, hollered life lessons on “scoring” – 75% louder than the average UK ear will tolerate: the image of Kevin Hart dancing in his underpants to a Pitbull song may well be emblematic of where the American mainstream is nowadays, but surely didn’t need preserving for future generations to recoil from. 

Think Like a Man Too opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

"Salomé" (The Guardian 19/09/14)

Salomé ***
Dir: Al Pacino. With: Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain, Kevin Anderson. 81 mins. Cert: 15. 

This Sunday cinemagoers can catch a double-bill that emerges from Al Pacino’s late-blooming obsession with Wilde’s tale of transgressive sexuality. The main feature records the play’s 2006 L.A. staging: hardly standard live-event fare, it’s closer to Mike Figgis or Michael Almereyda’s experiments in giving perilously archaic texts a scholarly redesign, shot by Miss Julie’s Benoît Delhomme in dynamic close-ups that capture the players thinking their way through Wilde’s tricky, arguably misogynist scenario. A pre-stardom Jessica Chastain makes Salomé a tragically self-assured headhunter, punished for knowing exactly what she wants; she even aces her potentially ridiculous big dance, which – as modern mores dictate – involves far fewer than seven veils and moves apparently inspired by Shakira. Against her, Pacino’s vulgar, ethnically indeterminate Herod furnishes this banquet with easily digested ham: if he can’t quite bring all of Wilde’s often florid imagery into focus, he’s given it a good shout – literally so, in places. 

Salomé screens with Wilde Salomé, and a Pacino-Stephen Fry Q&A, in selected cinemas this Sunday.

"Barbecue" (The Guardian 19/09/14)

Barbecue ** 
Dir: Eric Lavaine. With: Lambert Wilson, Franck Dubosc, Florence Foresti. 98 mins. Cert: 15

A limply chummy French midlife crisis movie, with Lambert Wilson heading up a group of greying friends as a philandering fiftysomething obliged to reassess his values in the wake of a heart attack. Everyone’s taking it easy from there: that coronary thrombosis provides the dramatic peak of a film otherwise composed of a boringly whitebread social set lunching, playing boules and bickering with no particular wit or style. Bright sitcom styling only exposes the absence of much cinematic ambition or purpose: it’s all too easy to imagine an ITV primetime version starring one Glenister or another, and it wouldn’t be any less skippable. 

Barbecue opens at London's Institut Français today.

Moving in: "The Guest"

The emergent horror tyro Adam Wingard is undergoing what we might call gentrification via genre. His grungy, mumblecore-influenced breakthrough feature A Horrible Way to Die only arrived belatedly over here on DVD, and if he then managed to sneak into the multiplexes with last year's follow-up You're Next, that film proved just a little too taut and nasty for general acceptance. Wingard now lands his widest release to date with The Guest, a thriller that could even be marketed to Radio 4-listening bluestockings because of the presence of Downton Abbey's reputedly dreamy Dan Stevens in the lead role. From down-and-out to Downton in three movies: that's quite the trajectory for Wingard, and the new film has just enough going on in its frames to sustain the feeling he's a director who still has places to go.

Stevens here plays David, who one afternoon shows up on the doorstep of the all-American Peterson family, claiming to be a soldier who served in the Gulf with the family's eldest boy. Before you can say "Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Theorem", he's insinuated himself into their lives, becoming a replacement son for grieving mother Laura (Sheila Kelley), a beer-and-football buddy for stressed salaryman pop Spencer (Leland Orser), a protector to bullied son Luke (Brendan Mayer) and an object of confused lust for daughter Anna (Maika Monroe, the closest the movies have yet found to a workable Brittany Murphy replacement). The new arrival is plainly too good to be true; the questions that arise concern whose side David is on, and what it is he might still be fighting for.

What Wingard had from the off - what he picked up from those 1970s genre exercises he evidently schooled himself in - was that rare and precious commodity of patience, a willingness to let events play out without recourse to cheap thrills; it's a choice that allows him to build up those characters we'll eventually see running around in abject panic, and to foster audience uncertainty as to what it is we're actually watching. A Horrible Way to Die staked its all on this long game, and appeared for much of its duration to be setting out a bruised, lived-in romance rather than anything so piercingly obvious as another slasher movie; The Guest, like You're Next before it, sets up expectations of social satire - Anna aside, the Petersons seem uncommonly credulous - only for a location shift some forty minutes in to flag how Wingard is keen to fold in a few more overtly commercial influences.

If you're prepared to go along with what follows as metafiction, then The Guest functions very capably as a night out. Wingard has a gift for staging blackly comic violence, and Stevens' superficial charms - that softly purring voice, those bright blue eyes - are such that your mum or gran might well respond favourably, though the actor is equally alert to the ironies lurking around the corners of Wingard and Simon Barrett's script: David isn't quite as assured as he first seems, not so much in control as in too deep, which is why everything will end in tears. Still, squeamish viewers need not worry unduly: long before the fairground house of horrors finale, Steve Moore's faux-Eighties electronic score has wrapped the entire, 15-rated package in comforting movie quotation marks. We're in safe hands throughout.

Clearly, the multiplex is gaining another flexible narrative technician from the indie sector, although we might pause for a moment to question what Wingard might be losing in this transition: nothing in this rollercoaster-crowdpleaser is allowed to be as haunting as the genuinely desolate vision of ruined lives worked up in A Horrible Way to Die - or even, really, as creepy as all the maskwork in You're Next. Wingard now evidently knows how to get an audience in and out and possibly off: a typical response to The Guest may well be that of the young woman sitting behind me at the public screening I attended, who kept up a steady stream of amused "ooh!"s and "ahh!"s throughout. Wingard gives us our money's worth, certainly. But has he learned to get - and does he now have any interest in getting - any of the tougher stuff to play?

The Guest is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

1,001 Films: "Rosemary's Baby" (1968)

Would it be facile to suggest it was Roman Polanski's experiences during the Holocaust that left him so adept at evoking horror in poky rooms and other hidey-holes? Slotting in between 1965's Repulsion (London) and 1976's The Tenant (Paris), the New York-set chiller Rosemary's Baby proved the centrepiece of a loose globetrotting triptych that identified something terrifying in the gap between interior and exterior spaces: these are films that have cause to ask "What's going on inside me? What's really in my closet?" Some have seen cause to infer Polanski's adaptation of the Ira Levin novel also wonders what might have been going on inside America in the late 1960s, a country on the verge of striking its own deal with the Devil, but it can just as easily be approached as a disquisition on the Manhattan postcode lottery, a movie that wonders what would happen if the pied-à-terre you bought to raise your children in turned out to be managed by a collective of ageing Satanists. (And we've all had landlords like that.)

The Upper West Side apartment building that upwardly mobile Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes move into does indeed house a rich history of the dark arts: one minute it's all chit-chat over cheesecake with the neighbours, the next he's winning theatre roles previously believed lost, and she's got butterflies - or something far, far worse - in her tummy. Though Polanski stages some trippy Satanic rites, the film's most powerful effects stem from an inversion of the usual external factors associated with pregnancy. Rather than blossoming, Farrow's Rosemary withers; rather than bringing colour to her cheeks, her baby appears to be draining her of all life, making a death mask of some already delicate features. The backdrop, certainly, is a realistic New York bohemia - this is gestation period as off-Broadway horror show - yet there lurks on the fringes the grotesquerie Polanski was always fond of, and saw far too much of, and which was to ripen fully in The Tenant; it may even be objectionable that, while her hubby has a career of which to speak, Rosemary should be defined more or less entirely by her ovaries and a Vidal Sassoon haircut. Feminism lay around the corner.

Just as the no less bedroom-bound The Exorcist would come to trade on Linda Blair's guilelessness, Polanski here preys on Farrow's pliability: for the sake of narrative ambiguity, he needs us to believe Rosemary is capable of wittering hysteria, and that, in the absence of anything else for her to do, she might conceivably be filled up with her own irrationality. Still, the film holds up because it plunges us into the same situations facing any young couple trying to make the right move and pick the best time to settle down, or wondering what kind of a world they're bringing their offspring into. If we accept the (debatable) line that Lars von Trier's Antichrist was an attempt by a childless director to put the wind up all those who have gone forth and multiplied, then Rosemary's Baby now looks like the "respectable" studio version, adapted from a bestseller, and comparatively restrained in what it shows up until a finale that's both weirdly funny and tender in the way it underscores the possessive apostrophe of the title. I fear a remake must be coming down the tubes sooner or later, doubtless dripping in amniotic fluids, and far less ambiguous about its kicking and screaming.

Rosemary's Baby is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.