Saturday, 21 October 2017

Slow future: "Blade Runner 2049"

The rain, at least, hasn't slowed any. It would not be an overstatement to say that Blade Runner 2049 has arrived among us as the most keenly awaited film of 2017: the Star Wars sequels have by now been placed in such safe corporate hands that fans can rest assured they know exactly what they're getting, whereas this feels like a risk, revisiting a vision even Ridley Scott never seemed to settle on in the course of three separate cuts, and spending vast amounts of Sony money on trying to develop rather than dissipate its mystique. The French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, working from a script by original scribe Hampton Fancher and recent Scott go-to Michael Green, seems keen to keep us all waiting. This is the second Villeneuve film in a row I've seen with a paying multiplex crowd - after last year's Arrival - and the second time I've witnessed this filmmaker lure restless popcorn-munchers into a state of hushed anticipation. He does this by giving us other matters to chew over. Where is this story headed? When will Harrison Ford return? Is Ryan Gosling - as Officer K, the replicant cop set on old Deckard's case - ever going to develop a second expression?

While waiting for these questions to be resolved, we can admire, even lap up, a meticulous recreation and expansion of the established Blade Runner universe. Villeneuve's mid-century L.A., as with Scott's earlier conception, is a work of notably intelligent design, both macro (a metropolis now overrun with Russian rather than Asian influences, plagued by freak shifts in climate) and micro (lots of boxes: crates buried underground, tobacco tins for trinkets). We need, and are afforded, plentiful time to take it all in, for 2049 runs just shy of two hours 49 minutes, the size of an iceberg in multiplex terms, and for much of that duration it moves like an iceberg, too. What's remarkable is the extent to which the new film tessellates with what came before: that very Scott-like immersive design, the hazy ambient soundscapes, a toy horse that rhymes with the first film's unicorns. Villeneuve even holds to the glacial pace of the original - which always felt like a depressive art school student's response to Star Wars's matinee hijinks - but now there's nearly an hour more of it, and all but the most obsessive BR fans may find themselves checking their watches. Worse: they'll have time to question how much human interest there really is here.

What Fancher and Green have written forms both a continuation of Philip K. Dick's existential explorations and a reverse-angle upon them. Where Ford's Deckard was a weathered, human presence whose genesis was laid open to interpretation in the course of hunting replicants, Gosling's Officer K is a replicant given cause to wonder what it is to be human. That's a workable new line of inquiry, certainly, but it would only have held had the actors on screen not seemed quite so much like the last element to be dropped into these sets, and by far the least significant. Scott had the advantage of Ford, movie star of the old school, the Bogart of New Hollywood, to keep us interested. His Deckard, however, doesn't show up here until the cusp of the third hour, at which point 2049 picks up the pace a little, interrogating the events of the first movie in much the same way later episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return interrogated Fire Walk With Me. For the most part, alas, we're stuck with monoface Gosling. That lights-on-nobody's-home mien might have been useful for the projection of androidry, but strip Gosling of his gift for light comedy, and he defaults to the setting of mopey passivity: several times, we find him looking on blankly as K's superior Robin Wright barks dialogue at him ("The world is ending!", "You just stopped a bomb from going off!") which is entirely at odds with the film's general lack of urgency.

Lightness will apparently be off the books completely inside three decades, but even when Villeneuve is aiming for colourful, all you see and feel is strain. The revelation that K's corporate nemesis Sylvia Hoeks is getting a mani-pedi while phoning in an air strike might, in a fleeter-footed proposition, have counted as the kind of quick-fix sight gag that jabs a laugh out of drifting viewers. Yet Villeneuve spends so long getting to it, and then dwelling on the peculiarities of the manicurist's uniform and the precise shade of polish being applied, that the gag loses its snap: it's another instance of the film stifling itself with its own design. When Gosling initiates a quasi-threesome by meshing the bodies of a flesh-and-blood working girl (Mackenzie Davis) and his hologrammatic homehelp (Ana de Armas), the scene's forever too clever to be as kinky as it thinks it's being: the blood runs north as the mind wonders how the techies pulled off the effect, and besides Villeneuve cuts away to an advert on the side of a skyscraper just as things are getting interesting. (Something else this filmmaker has inherited from Scott: he doesn't do sex, which partly explains the film's chilliness around women, and presumably seals its director's place in the modern-day studio system.)

This may be the eternal flaw of the Blade Runner movies: that they offer so much on a visual and conceptual level, yet so little to quicken the pulse or stir the emotions; that, whichever way you cut them, they're Tin Men headed in search of a heart. Maybe that's why Scott was compelled to keep tinkering with the first film, and why this one, which counts as a success in some ways (not least in how it honours its predecessor), feels in others like some grand, expensive folly. Not one scene in Villeneuve's film displays the spontaneity or spark of that much-memed This Morning outtake in which Gosling and an uncommonly spry Ford proceed to get lightly tipsy in a Park Lane hotel room: that's what it means to be human, revealed in a little over four minutes, and without recourse to clunky, heavy-handed dialogue or Jared Leto stumbling round in dark corners as a beardy blind genius. Blade Runner 2049 is imaginatively conceived, brilliantly designed, and often plain astonishing to look at; its saving grace is that it's a hell of a movie to zone out before. Yet zone out I did, and each crawling frame only served to confirm how a storyboard's panels can become as oppressive as any other prison. Imagine how great the film would be if its images had any life in them.

Blade Runner 2049 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday, 20 October 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 13-15, 2017:

1 (new) Lego Ninjago (U)

2 (1) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
3 (new) The Snowman (15) **
4 (2Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
5 (new) Botoks (18)
6 (4) The Mountain Between Us (12A)
7 (new) The Ritual (15)
8 (3It: Chapter One (15) ***
9 (new) Loving Vincent (12A)
10 (new) The Party (15) ***


My top five: 
1. I Am Not a Witch

2. North by North-West [above]
3. Dina
4. Secret Superstar
5. Unrest

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12) **
2 (2) The Boss Baby (U)
3 (4) Logan (12) ***
4 (3Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
5 (5) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
6 (6) Hidden Figures (PG) **
7 (7) Kong: Skull Island (12)
8 (8) Going in Style (12)
(10) Miss Sloane (15)
10 (re) Get Out (15) ****


My top five: 
1. City of Ghosts

2. The Red Turtle
3. My Life as a Courgette
4. David Lynch: The Art Life
5. Suntan

Out of Africa: "I Am Not a Witch"

Whisper it softly, but there are signs the British film industry may be moving beyond providing jobs for the usual boys. I Am Not a Witch, the spellbinding feature debut of the black British writer-director Rungano Nyoni, was shot on location in Zambia with money from the Film Agency for Wales, among a panoply of European funding bodies, and just one of the points in its favour is that you very much feel the Daily Mail is going to have a coronary should it happen to get a load of this. From the off, Nyoni places us in what, for the majority of UK cinemagoers, will be unfamiliar territory: she acknowledges as much by opening upon the sight of a coach full of tourists - including one prominent white body, the last but one we will see in the entire picture - heading towards a village where a puzzling tableau-cum-photo opportunity is being staged involving local women and yards of flowing ribbon.

The story, on the other hand, is as upfront as that title. At a police station elsewhere in the same village, Shula (Margaret Mulubwa), an eight-year-old in a #bootycall top, is accused by her elders of witchcraft. It is, patently, an absurd claim, and one that begets an absurd procedural: in place of evidence-gathering or forensic tests, a witch doctor is brought in to slit a chicken's throat to determine whether or not the girl is what she's accused of being. Her status decided, Shula is shuttled off to "witch camp", which turns out to be that earlier tourist destination, a state-approved holding site whose exclusively female residents are kept on big spools of ribbon to prevent them running amok. It makes for almost as striking a metaphor for the subjugation of women as it does an image on screen, yet the girl has boundless youth and a defiant spirit on her side. We already sense that, one way or another, she won't be here for long.

What's startling is that we're not in some unenlightened past or dystopian future: I Am Not a Witch, forever present-tense, unfolds in the here-and-now, and it very quickly becomes clear Nyoni means to satirise some of the less progressive aspects of African life. With the state massively over-estimating her witchy wisdom, Shula finds herself being deployed as a trial judge, and having to call a friend or two back at camp to determine which of the suspects put before her is a thief ("Pick the dark one," comes the advice); later, the authorities, worried about a possible drought, call upon her as a weather forecaster. Her government handler's wife, a picture of new money in her flashy clothes and blonde highlights, lectures her in turn on earning respectability through marriage. Listening from afar - through a conch, indeed - to her contemporaries at play, Shula is surely receiving an alternative schooling in what it is to be a woman in certain corners of the world: as a funny scene with a beautician touting a line of "Micki Ninaj" wigs helps to demonstrate, it is often deemed a matter of fluttering false eyelashes until a successful man comes along to rescue you.

If the film overall leans in the direction of the allegorical, the performers seem too flesh-and-blood, too in-the-moment merely to serve as abstractions. Henry B.J. Phiri makes for a tremendous blusterer as Shula's titled chaperone Mr. Banda ("Minister for Tourism and Traditional Beliefs"), possibly a descendant of the impotent bureaucrat of Ousmane Sembene's great African satire Xala, and absolutely the kind of successful man Nyoni intends to skewer; first seen getting his wife to scrub his back in the bath, he's later all glad hands and fake smiles when touting his young charge on a TV talk show, and finally reduced to grovelling on his hands and knees before a queen. Against him, Mulubwa's sullen, downturned gaze - her refusal to make nice, or play the role desired of her - makes Shula an extremely effective symbol of resistance, although her smile, when it comes, should be enough to melt any onlooker's heart. 

Mostly, you're struck by the advantages of having someone behind the camera who wasn't breastfed on Brideshead, and who accordingly thinks in big, widescreen images: she recruits the adventurous cinematographer David Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent) to capture such sights as the witches lined up on a flatbed truck for easier transportation, or Shula flapping her arms in a bid to rise above a scorched-earth landscape. Nyoni is singularly unafraid of strangeness - of images and ideas that don't initially appear to make sense, but are allowed to take shape, breathe and fly before our eyes - where so many of her countrymen have been given to caution. That caution may be a consequence of working within an industry geared more towards the well-made film - neat, tidy things, destined for a BAFTA screenplay nod and an afterlife in the Sunday matinee slot on ITV3 - than it is towards genuine marvels. A marvel this is, though: you emerge amazed both that Nyoni ever got it funded (imagine the pitch meetings!), and at just how resonantly the film has turned out. Shorn of the usual deferences, equivocations and compromises, here is a British film that actually looks and feels like cinema: raise it high, and set it loose into the world.

I Am Not a Witch opens in selected cinemas from today. 

Moving forwards: "Unrest"

It sounds like a film-school exercise: make a motion picture about someone who cannot move. The truly terrifying thing about the new documentary Unrest, which heightens the challenge by being a motion picture about people who can't move directed by someone who can barely move, is that nothing about it was born of choice: here is one of those rare projects that everyone involved presumably wishes to high heaven they didn't have to start out on. It opens with discombobulating wobblycam footage of a twentysomething woman labouring to haul herself off the floor and onto a bed: believe it or not, this is our director-host's big entrance. The woman is Jennifer Brea, a sometime Ivy League high-flier whose rampant social mobility - excellent career prospects, handsome, Oprah-approved tech-whizz beau, much travel to far-flung climes - was suddenly and irreversibly halted by the crippling condition known as ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Brea took up filming herself in the early stages of physical degeneration so as to document her symptoms, in the hope some medically trained onlooker might spot something that would succeed in rebooting her fritzing system; the camera became a crutch, a means of reaching out for help.

Hours of YouTube footage that Brea discovered while bedbound suggested she wasn't alone in this, so after a while she began filming the stories of others, and the testimony of experts in the field, interviewing via Skype, directing by proxy. We get a very real sense, watching Unrest, of Brea the indomitable go-getter, determined not to let her malfunctioning mitochondria get in the way of stitching together what counts as the first comprehensive onscreen treatment of ME and other comparable conditions - a film that carries us all from yellowing cases of hysteria to a place of greater knowledge. The facts are stark, and often staggering: some 17 million sufferers around the world, of whom 25% are permanently bedbound and some 85% are female, leading Brea to wonder whether the male medical establishment has been in less of a hurry to do the heavy lifting on ME than they have been on other epidemics. (She uncovers one nasty episode in so-called liberal Denmark, where a huffy doctor - quite possibly the inspiration for Dr. Helmer on Lars von Trier's The Kingdom - had one young female patient with ME-like symptoms locked away in an asylum.)

Where AIDS, which came to light around the same historical moment, eventually found itself halted by effective courses of treatment, opinions still differ on what even to call this condition - CFS, yuppie flu, Epstein-Barr - and a big diagnostic problem has always been that it affects sufferers in very different ways: Brea herself can't stand upright some days, but recovers enough to go on walks in the country around the film's midpoint, only to succumb thereafter to horrific-seeming cerebral pain that leaves her horizontal and spouting gibberish. At this point, a caveat may be in order. For anyone possessed of even the slightest trace of empathy, Unrest's first half cannot fail to be a painful watch, staggering as it does between individuals forced to exist in extremes of agony or exhaustion. Even approached as a medical mystery/whodunnit - such as that nice Dr. Greene was faced with on e.r. back in the day - the film is impaired by the fact our detective heroine is prone to collapsing in the wake of any breakthroughs, and can find no immediate solution with which to warm our cockles. She does, however, cover an admirable amount of ground - doubly admirable, if we factor in the limitations the condition places on this filmmaker.

Part of Unrest's project, an extension of those YouTube confessionals, is to counter the invisibility that has driven many CFS sufferers to feel isolated, scared or depressed, and in extreme cases, to attempt suicide; yet Brea is also alert to the strains CFS places on even loving relationships, and how, in the absence of any clear, coherent medical plan of action, the usual cranks and quacks have stepped in to proffer miracle cures, from mould-free tents to huffing aerosol gasses - many tested here in a Spurlocky intermission that yields welcome chuckles but no signs of improvement. Casting around for answers always means rejecting the wrong ones, though, and the power of Unrest lies in seeing a young woman using her remaining privilege and resources to cut through the claims of the snake-oil salesmen - and a more general fug of despair - and thereby come to the aid of others. I can imagine the film becoming a source of immense consolation, possibly even cheer, for anyone living with this condition, and a source of some fascination for anybody with an interest in the workings of the human mind and body. Let's hope someone sees it and cracks the code eventually: the sobering message of this agonising labour of love is that it could happen to you, too.

Unrest opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Secret Superstar" (Guardian 20/10/17)

Secret Superstar ****
Dir: Advait Chandan. With: Zaira Wasim, Meher Vij, Raj Arjun, Aamir Khan. 149 mins. Cert: 12A

Bollywood’s major Autumn release unspools like a continuation of last Christmas’s noted crowdpleaser Dangal. Once again, progressively minded megastar Aamir Khan amplifies a young woman’s voice; it’s just the process, in this instance, is literal. The voice belongs to Insia (Zaira Wasim, one of Dangal’s wrestler girls), a small-town teenager with big, primetime TV-fuelled dreams of becoming the Indian Taylor Swift. Alas, her controlling, abusive father would prefer she grew up to serve him – so she takes the unusual step of uploading her tunes to YouTube in full burqa-clad anonymity, becoming a viral sensation. The well-worn narrative furrow towards the limelight expands – as Khan’s best films do – into a consideration of several issues besides, from the Internet’s transformative powers to a woman’s place within male-dominated households and industries: Khan, nearing Hanks-ish likability levels, is a joy as a preening producer struggling to throw off his “Mr. Nasty” rep.

One surprise is that there are surprises come the third act, not least a tremendous raising of stakes with dad’s plan to relocate his clan to Saudi, threatening to turn our heroine’s makeshift disguise into a permanent prison. Yet the whole film is elevated by Khan’s mid-career realisation that there might be something renewing and emboldening in nudging the cinema away from its default father-son stories: Meher Vij is very moving as the clan’s selfless matriarch – a Mother India for the Kris Jenner age – while the outstanding Wasim gives the most winning ingenue performance since Louane Emera in 2014’s not dissimilar French favourite La Famille Bélier. It’s playing what has, under Cowell rule, become a familiar tune, but this first-class entertainment, the best imaginable antidote to the toxicity presently leaking out of Western movie circles, makes every last one of its notes and beats count.

Secret Superstar is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"My Little Pony: The Movie" (Guardian 20/10/17)

My Little Pony: The Movie **
Dir: Jayson Thiessen. Animation with the voices of: Tara Strong, Emily Blunt, Uzo Aduba, Liev Schreiber. 99 mins. Cert: U

The Hasbroisation of American cinema continues apace, although after the relentless din of five Transformers and a Battleship, it’s almost a relief to be confronted with something of a more bucolic stripe. Scholars of the MLP canon should be advised that this full-length animation abandons the comparatively hip Equestria Girls strand of 2015’s Friendship Games – wherein the ponies were transformed into smart-talking college students – in favour of a return to the cloud cuckoo land whence the franchise began. Thus we find earnest purple nag Twilight Sparkle’s efforts to stage the annual Friendship Festival sabotaged by underbrushed outsider Tempest Shadow – the latter voiced by Emily Blunt, who must have really, really loved these toys as a child to have wound up in this vicinity.

Get past the dizzying unlikeliness of being alive to witness a My Little Pony movie in late 2017, and it’s not unpretty to look at, with dabs of daffy humour (the Festival’s “mane event” is Sia, or a four-legged version thereof: a Sia-horse, perhaps) and Disney-aping inspirational songs that prove broadly less annoying than “Let It Go”. Still, there will have been cumulonimbi possessed of greater substance. That it’s been brainstormed in a boardroom can be observed from the midfilm diversion – not untypical of its broken-backed storytelling – into non-ponyish (but demographically desirable) pirate territory, and even its minipop feminism seems geared towards creating a fleeting uptick on some minion’s spreadsheet: a high-pitched whinny of you’re awesome, girls, now buy the product. If we tolerate this, then the Care Bears will be next.

My Little Pony: The Movie opens in cinemas nationwide today. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Two-story love song: "Dina"

There aren't many documentaries that open with fully two-and-a-half minutes of routine dental surgery, but then there aren't all that many docs like Dina. The winner of this year's Sundance Grand Jury prize is a love story, which would already ensure it stood out from its generally doomy and pessimistic field, and furthermore a romance involving two pretty special individuals: Pennsylvanians Dina Buno and Scott Levin, fortysomethings on the Asperger's spectrum, caught by directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini going through their daily routines in the run-up to a big day - their upcoming wedding ceremony. As befits a film about lovebirds, everything speaks to an intimacy, not just that between the subjects, but between filmmakers and subjects, and between the film and its audience. It isn't just that we see Dina and Scott snuggling on the sofa, turning in at night, and getting dressed again in the morning; the film itself has been composed in a close, near-Academy ratio that aligns it with the video diaries and photo albums of yore, and squares comfortably with footage of Dina's first wedding, back when she was a glamorous twentysomething blonde.

What Sickles and Santini cling to are those moments that wouldn't ordinarily be preserved in any format: Dina sorting her underwear drawers, or kicking back in front of a Sex and the City re-run, Scott waiting to order a pizza at their local parlour, or listening to his music on a crosstown bus. (In its offbeat emphasis on downtime, Dina recalls that earlier Sundance sensation American Splendor: these square frames could equally be Harvey Pekar panels.) Their relationship is, in many ways, a model of simplicity - no bust-ups, no gameplaying, no meltdowns. The SATC episode prompts Dina to extol the joys of the footrub, whereupon Scott duly obliges, and finds himself being rewarded with a peck on the lips. She buys him a copy of The Joy of Sex, possibly more for her benefit than his. ("I've been around," she flatly states, to which he altogether touchingly replies: "I could learn.") Here, Sickles and Santini capture a ripple of tension passing between the two: Dina is concerned the inexperienced Scott would rather spend his nights in bed reading Yet even this discrepancy in life experience poses no obstacle to their future happiness, and the film's outlook proves so sunny it can't fail to warm on some level: its roseate Americana - clear blue skies, bowling alleys, Pete Seeger-ish guitar strums through The Battle Hymn of the Republic - evidently struck a chord with the Sundance voters, this of all years. (A coda finds Dina and Scott out hiking in the run-up to last November's Presidential election: let's just say neither is a fan of the current incumbent.)

Although Scott chances upon TV reportage of the Paris terror attacks, we seem far removed from that particular news cycle - the soundtrack's signature cue isn't Scott's beloved "Before the Next Teardrop Falls", but The Seekers' "A World of Our Own" - with only a late revelation, via a horrifying telephone call, of just what Dina has survived to get this second shot at marital bliss. Such a small-scale, quotidian story needed careful handling to engage the viewer while protecting Dina and Scott from any exploitation, and it gets it. Throughout, the camera is locked off and left to run in the corners of the room, presumably so as not to spook its jittery subjects, and this directorial restraint serves to allow Dina and Scott greater space and dignity, granting them the agency to shape their own conversations and lives while guiding the film's generous, open-minded editorial line. The result may strike some, not least the Kardashian-savvy Dina, as a purer form of reality television, one removed of any cynical gloss or guile - it may be the only pop-cultural artefact in existence to invoke Richard Marx's 1989 hit "Right Here Waiting" without a flicker of snickering irony - but you can also see Dina being claimed as an empowering film on the subject of mental illness. And if there happened to be any bruised romantics out there who just wanted a reminder there truly is someone for everybody, well: don't look any further.

Dina opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.