Friday, 30 September 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of September 23-25, 2016:
1 (1) Bridget Jones's Baby (15)
2 (new) The Magnificent Seven (12A) **
3 (5) Kubo and the Two Strings (PG) ****
4 (8) Finding Dory (U) ***
5 (new) The Girl with All the Gifts (15) ****
6 (6) Don't Breathe (15) ****
7 (2) Blair Witch (15) ***
8 (4) Sausage Party (15) ***
9 (7) Bad Moms (15) **
10 (re) The BFG (PG)


My top five:   
1. Tharlo [above]
2. Under the Shadow
3. Courted
4. The Fencer
5. MS Dhoni: The Untold Story 

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Captain America: Civil War (12)
2 (2) The Jungle Book (PG) **
3 (4) Deadpool (15)
4 (5) Eye in the Sky (15) ***
5 (7) Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
6 (9) The Revenant (15) ***
7 (6) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12)
8 (8) Our Kind of Traitor (15) ***
9 (new) Love & Friendship (U) ***
10 (10) Grimsby (15)  

My top five:  
1. Jim: The James Foley Story
2. The Nice Guys
3. Embrace of the Serpent
4. The Measure of a Man
5. The Closer We Get 

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. A Knight's Tale (Sunday, five, 2.30pm)
2. Red Eye (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
3. American Pie (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
4. Multiplicity (Friday, C4, 1.05am)
5. The Expendables 2 (Sunday, five, 9pm) 

"M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story" (Guardian 30/09/16)

M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story ***
Dir: Neeraj Pandey. With: Sushant Singh Rajput, Kiara Advani, Anupam Kher, Bhoomika Chawla. 184 mins. Cert: PG
More five-dayer than 20:20 blast, Neeraj Pandey’s hefty Hindi biopic seizes upon the Indian cricket captain as a long-haired, motorbike-riding poster boy for the country’s modernisation. This Dhoni (Sushant Singh Rajput) strides out with logo-emblazoned bat onto a succession of pitches incrementally grander than the one his humble engineer father (Anupam Kher) struggled to water; even his erratic development – stuck checking train tickets after a promising student career – seems somehow tied to the state and fate of the nation. Any Boycottian analysis would rule certain aspects a tad daft – there probably wouldn’t be so many midwicket musical montages in The Andrew Strauss Story – and the tone’s somewhere between understandably fond and fawning. Still, the on-field activity’s convincing, and Rajput makes MSD a winning mix of eyes-on-the-prize focus, square-jawed stoicism and quiet humility. Pandey holds up this career as cause for communal celebration, and his film has the big-match temperament to set us cheering – or, in this Englishman’s case, politely applauding. 

M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is now playing in selected cinemas.

"Kickboxer: Vengeance" (Guardian 30/09/16)

Kickboxer: Vengeance ***
Dir: John Stockwell. With: Alain Moussi, Dave Bautista, Gina Carano, Jean-Claude van Damme. 90 mins. Cert: 15  

1989’s oft-rented, rarely rewound Kickboxer provided many with their introduction to Jean-Claude van Damme and Muay Thai martial arts. This remake proves smarter than was strictly necessary: capable journeyman John Stockwell (Blue Crush) busts out the helicopter shots to oversee boyish Alain Moussi’s progress through Thailand to avenge his brother’s death at the extensively tatted hands of former WWE heel Dave Bautista. The performers bring more physical heft than thespian clout, but genre nostalgists should appreciate the refreshingly uncomplicated manner in which Stockwell frames their dust-ups, displaying a sure editorial feel for the landing of foot or fist on face or torso. (They’ll be doubly delighted when a fugitive Moussi and pupil-turned-master van Damme encounter workmen carrying glass panes across a busy street.) Semi-disposable VOD fodder, then, but this lean, unpretentious entertainment delivers everything one might want from a film titled Kickboxer: Vengeance – including, at the last, an homage to the younger van Damme’s disco-dancing prowess. 

Kickboxer: Vengeance is now playing in selected cinemas.

"Urban Hymn" (Guardian 30/09/16)

Urban Hymn ***
Dir: Michael Caton-Jones. With: Shirley Henderson, Ian Hart, Steven Mackintosh, Letitia Wright. 114 mins. Cert: 15
2016 will go down as the year British cinema began to wrestle with the 2011 riots. Set against July’s documentary The Hard Stop, Michael Caton-Jones’ drama risks appearing a perilously soft option the moment juvenile care worker/keen chorister Shirley Henderson overhears delinquent diva Jamie (My Brother the Devil’s excellent Letitia Wright) singing Etta James in her bedroom. Thereafter, we’re watching committed actors nudging Nick Moorcroft’s scenario away from a very familiar, naggingly complacent groove. The riot backdrop certainly recedes from vision, a convenient prompt for teaching the world to sing anew, yet a stronger second half pushes in unexpected directions. Here, Jamie struggles to disentangle herself from damaged roomie Leanne (a snarling Isabella Laughland) – and Caton-Jones’ achievement is to make this a greater challenge than any acapella arrangement of, say, “Don’t Stop Me Now”. A mixed bag, then, but one that comes good in its closing stretch, working its way towards a place of quiet power.

Urban Hymn is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

On DVD: "Love & Friendship"

With some style and not untypical intelligence, the writer-director Whit Stillman has brought himself in from the margins of American cinema, via a succession of projects that sustained the illusion of giving the beancounters (and possibly even the audience) what they wanted while insisting on doing very much their own thing. 2011's Damsels in Distress could be sold as another candy-coloured campus comedy, even as it pursued a more philosophical bent; his Amazon Prime pilot The Cosmopolitans opened up the possibility of a move into television, current medium of choice for any grown-up who couldn't give a fig about superheroics. Now Stillman ventures Love & Friendship, an adaptation of a lesser-known Jane Austen text ("Lady Susan"), which lands at a post-Downton moment when the period drama has never been more prominent in the audience's imagination, nor more marketable. (Accordingly, it swiftly became Stillman's biggest hit to date upon its theatrical run earlier in the summer.)

As has been widely observed, the new film tesselates closely with the status-obsessed worlds set out elsewhere in this director's back catalogue: the preppy New York of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, the ex-pat communities of Barcelona and The Cosmopolitans. Yet if L&F retains a measure of stiff formality - introducing all its dramatis personae with typeset captions - it also offers the ruffling shock of seeing a filmmaker entering this genre, at this late stage in the day, and demonstrating more interest in the words being spoken than he really does in the costumes and fixtures. How this outsider came to shake up British high society is mirrored in Austen's plot, which sees a black sheep - Kate Beckinsale's penniless widow Susan - returning to the fold of her extended family, an American confidante (Chloe Sevigny) in tow, at a moment of crisis that has set everybody to gabbing at once.

Rather than seeking to immerse us in this world, Stillman's dipping a toe in and looking at it askance - and what he sees, with its frills and love letters, is an innately silly construct, at least as ridiculous (and as ripe for mockery) as the hoity-toity members' clubs of Metropolitan or the snob's paradise of Disco or the DIY suicide prevention centre in Damsels. Immediately, that switch of perspective differentiates L&F from all those desperate Downton wannabes that have emerged over the past few years, hobbled in their attempts to match that show's Masterpiece Theater finery by their comparatively sparse budgets. Stillman, as an American freelancer working in an Ireland dressed to pass for Austenland, doesn't himself have the resources to throw lavish balls and wedding parties, but then his forte has always been tight groups of people in comfortable rooms, and it barely seems to matter that he can't wholly commit to the costume part: the film's closer in spirit and execution to a spoof like 1997's Stiff Upper Lips than it is to Sense & Sensibility.

Draping layers of irony over the footmen and Chesterfields might have irked the purists who take Austen's matchmaking seriously and insist that all her life-wisdoms be served straight, yet anecdotal evidence - and, perhaps most crucially, box-office returns - would suggest most demographics have gone away satisfied. Long-time Stillman fans will be further reminded of this filmmaker's enduring affection for the kind of ensemble players who can work distinct forms of magic on a screenwriter's words. (In this, he is markedly more generous and open-minded than either Tarantino or Woody Allen, who tend to insist all their players come to sound like them.) Damsels could be floated on the back of the wispy mumblecore movement as a vehicle for mumblequeen Greta Gerwig, but it wouldn't have been half the comedy it was without the contributions of her fellow Damsels, not to mention the lunks, jocks and dweebs who circled around them.

A similar tactic is in evidence here. Stillman crafts a legit star role for Beckinsale, not just picking up a career thread abandoned during her millennial plunge into blue-screen dreck (Underworld, Van Helsing), but skilfully weaving it into a character worthy of any more foursquare Austen adaptation. (L&F is the film that makes you realise the actress has a great nose for playing snobs.) Yet other faces and presences announce themselves beside her. Erstwhile Twilight makeweight Xavier Samuel - he was the third werewolf from the right, you'll remember - assumes the Taylor Nichols/Matt Keeslar/Adam Brody role of handsome swain who probably deserves better than to be stuck with this lot; the hitherto unobserved Tom Bennett pilfers whole sequences as a posh nitwit who's never eaten peas and has "quite funny" ideas about the opposite sex.

I had a few reservations. Stillman has so far enjoyed an easier ride than many directors who've continually returned to rooms full of landed white folk, possibly because he seems to know them so well, possibly because the portraits he paints there aren't as overtly flattering or genuflecting as those painted by Allen, or the Anderson-Baumbach gang who followed him in the indie continuum. Either way, the stakes can feel low here: as in a spoof, you quickly gain a sense that nothing that occurs in the course of this quintessential divertissement really matters; that these characters are just pieces nudged into elegant, appealing formations in a puzzle Stillman feels he has to solve in order to earn a much-overdue commercial hit. And, as elsewhere in this director's filmography, it may take as long as half the film to develop an ear for all this twitter: Stillman, to his credit, is one of the few working American filmmakers whose work actively benefits from being seen and heard more than once, the better to relax into its aperçus. Still, there's no denying Love & Friendship brings something fresh into the drawing room: it's a tart, swift lancing of a genre that's sorely come to deserve it.

Love & Friendship is available on DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye from Monday. 

Flowered up: "Dare To Be Wild"

The new Irish biopic Dare To Be Wild would appear to be one of those instances where a filmmaker thought her subject matter justified an altogether florid approach. This is the life story of Mary Reynolds (Emma Greenwood), the young landscape designer who - as Vivienne de Courcy's film would have it - overcame the odds and rank institutional snobbery to take the top prize at the Chelsea Flower Show. (When, exactly, is left unclear by a rare biopic to shy away from onscreen dates; the action here unfolds not in our world, but in romcomland, which sets one to questioning the veracity of its other developments.) First and biggest problem: horticulture - even, really, competitive horticulture - does not in itself make for gripping cinema. While we wait for the grass to grow and Chelsea to come round, there's a lot of our Mary lying down in fields and pointing out trees, which is educational but not especially entertaining; her creative struggles (exploitative bosses, financial penury, the greenhouse's glass ceiling) are more often explained than dramatised.

For the most part, the film determines never to take its heroine's achievements or vision seriously. Some very limp light comedy is wrung from the misadventures of Mary's oddbod crew, while there's a Mills & Boony romance with Tom Hughes as a violinist/wildflower expert who sporadically floats down from the treehouse he sleeps in to catch our girl when she faints. (Amazingly, an end title card suggests he's based on an actual living person.) Reducing Hughes to a pair of supportive cheekbones is typical of de Courcy's approach to actors: Greenwood, lively in Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship earlier this summer, is mostly deployed as a mouthpiece for greenspeak, while Alex MacQueen is enlisted to serve, somewhat inevitably, as the posh Nigel who represents all the worst, most entrenched beliefs of the British establishment. A mid-film Ethiopian diversion is attractively shot, and de Courcy retains the very best of intentions with regard to the planet, but the whole emerges as perhaps the first homegrown production to be both carbon and dramatically neutral: leaving no trace of itself behind, this version of the Reynolds story remains a hopelessly weedy proposition, no matter how much horseshit the filmmaker shovels on top of it.

Dare to be Wild is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Friday, 23 September 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of September 16-18, 2016:
1 (new) Bridget Jones's Baby (15)
2 (new) Blair Witch (15) ***
3 (new) The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years (12A) ***
4 (1) Sausage Party (15) ***
5 (5) Kubo and the Two Strings (PG) ****
6 (3) Don't Breathe (15) ****
7 (4) Bad Moms (15) **
8 (6) Finding Dory (U) ***
9 (new) The Infiltrator (15)
10 (2) Ben-Hur (12A)


My top five:   
1 (1) Captain America: Civil War (12)
2 (2) The Jungle Book (PG) **
3 (3) Zootropolis (PG) ****
4 (5) Deadpool (15)
5 (4) Eye in the Sky (15) ***
6 (6) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12)
7 (8) Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
8 (new) Our Kind of Traitor (15) *** 
9 (9) The Revenant (15) ***
10 (re) Grimsby (15)  

My top five:  
1. The Nice Guys
2. Embrace of the Serpent
3. The Measure of a Man
4. The Closer We Get 
5. Love & Friendship

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Leaving (Saturday, BBC2, 1.25am)
2. Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
3. The Hurt Locker (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
4. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (Thursday, C4, 12.55am)
5. Beowulf (Saturday, ITV1, 11.20pm)