Wednesday, 27 July 2016

1,001 Films: "Frenzy" (1972)

A crowd is distracted from an MP's promises to clean up the Thames when a woman's naked body washes up on the banks of the river, causing all present to wonder whether London has a new Jack the Ripper on its hands. One of Hitchcock's later, less well-regarded efforts, Frenzy is keen to impress upon us - from this opening scene onwards - that the public's appetite for "a good murder" was as insatiable in the 1970s as it was back when the director was starting out in the film industry in the 1920s. Despite the inclusion of more modern elements - nudity and explicit violence - the film reveals a filmmaker out of his time, stuck on the same locations (the markets, boozers and backstreets) that made up the London of Blackmail and The Lodger a half-century before; viewed today, it's actually Psycho - made a decade prior to this - which appears the more contemporary work.

Ex-Squadron Leader Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) has fallen on hard times: fired from a barman job after landlord Bernard Cribbins catches him drinking, he's reduced to sleeping in a Sally Army hostel when his estranged wife is murdered - by Blaney's best (read: only) mate Barry Foster - and suspicion lands upon him for the crime. Shades of The Wrong Man here too, then, but one overriding problem with Frenzy is that it was produced in the Britain of the 1970s, not the American studio system of the 1950s: visually, it's of a piece with the Confessions series - drab interiors, stomach-churning close-ups of full English breakfasts and unflatteringly photographed female flesh - and guilty of spending far too much time around sweatily unappealing men. Foster sports a hair colour only ever seen in 1970s films, and Finch is an abject-stupid hero who keeps making matters worse for himself.

Scripted by Anthony Shaffer in the middle of the run that also brought Sleuth and The Wicker Man to the screen, this isn't greatly more misogynistic than any of Hitchcock's other films, but the director's characteristic jokiness in the presence of carnage suddenly seems less than funny. It's difficult to sanction such lines as "every cloud has a silver lining" when a doctor learns the killer's victims were raped prior to being murdered; most of the light relief comes at the expense of harridan, henpecking or hopeless wives. A running gag about the rubbishness of Anglo-Saxon cuisine - Hitch biting the hand that kept him so obviously well fed - suggests it's all a matter of personal taste, and there's undeniable technical expertise in the way the camera withdraws from crime scenes while we await the terrible consequences, but it's finally much less fun than a movie that gives away the identity of its murderer so freely should be, and can seem almost as emotionally stunted as the killer himself.

Frenzy is available on DVD through Universal Pictures UK.

Monday, 25 July 2016

1,001 Films: "Cries and Whispers/Viskningar och rop" (1972)

Question: what's black and white and red all over? Answers: a newspaper, a nun in a blender, and Bergman's Cries and Whispers, which uses these colours exclusively to paint a picture of a household steeped in unhappiness. It's the story of three sisters and their maid: in some ways, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), the sibling dying of cancer (could be stomach, could be ovarian), seems the best off - no matter how much pain she's in now, at least she knows relief, in the form of death, is imminent. There's no such reassurance for the other two: Maria (Liv Ullman) watched her own husband commit suicide in front of her, while the deeply repressed Karin (Ingrid Thulin), who won't let anybody touch her, has started to see and hear things that just aren't there. Or are they?

The cries and whispers of the title go as much unheard - reduced to white noise inside the characters' heads - as unheeded within these still, quiet chambers, decked out in the coldest reds ever put on screen: the reds of lifeless, long-spilled blood. (In a film of such bodily concerns, the visuals suggest exactly what it might be to poke around inside a diseased and collapsing organ.) Bergman here takes what he was theorising about in Persona and The Silence - the distance between people - and applies it practically to a dramatic situation, with characters who've become isolated from the rest of the world (because of their wealth? Their sex? Their sisterhood?) and effectively left to rot. You can imagine it working as well on stage as on film - a few flashbacks notwithstanding - but in whichever form you encounter it, it's a remarkably intense work, building something compulsive out of the simplest of elements.

Cries and Whispers is available on DVD through Tartan.  

Sunday, 24 July 2016

From the archive: "Finding Nemo"

Finding Nemo, the latest Disney-Pixar collaboration, tells the tale of a neurotic single father's quest to track down his only child, after the latter is carried away by a couple of strangers. Rest easier: the main characters are all fish, and the bulk of the action takes place on, under or around water. The father, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), is a clownfish who simply isn't funny, and the Great Barrier Reef setting allows for the presence of pelicans called Nigel and Gerald, and reforming sharks known as Bruce. The textures (ranging from something as banal as water in a plastic bag to the vast, terrifying shadow creeping slowly up on Marlin and his female guide Dory) are, as you'd expect from the people behind Toy Story, lovingly rendered, and the ambient ocean sounds soothing beyond belief. The script achieves the usual blend of thrills and fish poo gags for the kids, while delivering a parable of modern parenting for their guardians. "I promised I'd never let anything happen to him," mourns Marlin at one point, prompting the generally scatterbrained Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) into a rare moment of clarity: "That's a funny thing to promise."

Perhaps it's the control freakery of the creatives who make them, but so many films about children are about holding on - one might even argue Toy Story is about this very need - but here's one that proposes letting go as an alternative: its parenting paradigm is an eminently laidback turtle called Crush (voiced by the film's director Andrew Stanton) who's only too happy to send his kids swimming and spinning away in order to let them grow, safe in the knowledge they will more than likely paddle straight back to him. This is a much warmer and funnier film than Pixar's previous effort Monsters, Inc., with its cuddly corporate conveyor belt and arbeit macht frei moralising. For all that, and the return to the pastel seascapes of The Little Mermaid, it's a movie with a sincere understanding of the real scary monsters - never mind your jellyfish and toothsome sharks - haunting middle America at the moment: abandonment and loss. The result is a film that knows exactly what it is to be a small fish at the very bottom of a very big pond; regrettable Robbie Williams cover of "Beyond the Sea" aside, it also has the perfect ending.

(September 2003)

Finding Nemo is available on DVD through Walt Disney Studios; a sequel, Finding Dory, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday. 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Empty space: "Independence Day: Resurgence"

In the absence of sound new ideas, the Hollywood studios have come to bet the house on nostalgia - and given the vast sums of money hoovered up over the past year by such retro-leaning endeavours as Jurassic World, SPECTRE and The Force Awakens, you can't fault their financial logic, at least. After a couple of stalled shots at seriousness (Anonymous, Stonewall), Independence Day: Resurgence is Roland Emmerich succumbing to give-'em-what-they-want thinking in trying to replicate the success of a dumb-as-nuts popcorn flick that went down like gangbusters back in 1996. Twenty years on, we might have cause to wonder whether it's possible for anybody to be nostalgic for a large-scale, effects-heavy exercise in city-trashing, given that that's exactly what 90% of major American releases now are; surely you can't miss what's put before your eyes every other week.

Although the new film opens with a you-must-remember-this datablast of President Bill Pullman's rousing fightback speech from the original, it's soon clear Will Smith will not be returning - we get the character's son (Jessie T. Usher) instead, who appears to have rebelled against his pop by becoming the most stolid of state functionaries - and that the series has undergone a marked paradigm shift. Emmerich's Big Idea this time around is that mankind piggybacked upon those alien craft that stalled or crashed at the end of the first movie to establish a foothold in space. Resurgence's version of 2016 is therefore closer to Blade Runner than to our own reality, with various ships hovering over the Washington skyline, but the space business only gives the film the look and feel of very generic sci-fi.

Key elements here include people in spacesuits bouncing round in zero gravity in scenes that play like plasticky Ridley Scott, Liam Hemsworth as a cocky space cowboy with the inevitable name of Jake, several token Chinese characters in another flagrant play for the expanding Asian market. (Where ID4 could be claimed as part of Emmerich's imperial phase, its sequel reminds you of the opportunist who, back in his native Germany, attempted to surf the Ghost Busters zeitgeist with the little-rented Ghost Chase.) Clearly, the filmmaker has decided to turn his hand to "hard" sci-fi (or as hard as the numbercrunchers will allow, factoring in the success of Gravity and The Martian), but all he's succeeded in doing is diluting the brand: I'll happily make public claims for the first movie's zappy thrills, but Resurgence was not the Independence Day sequel I was looking for.

Down on Earth, the returning Jeff Goldblum moves on from the loss of the Smith character by forming an unexpected double act with photojournalist Charlotte Gainsbourg, and for a while, the pair's offbeat rhythms please the ear. Yet the actors are hunting for scraps in a script that's otherwise preoccupied with reintroducing dimly recalled survivors from the first movie (Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Brett Spiner, each offered the narrative equivalent of a walk-on and a wave at Comic-Con) or introducing entirely new characters. Emmerich has no qualms about doing this as late as an hour in, in defiance of all known storytelling laws: some kids in a car (who never develop beyond the initial mental logline of "some kids in a car"), some blokes on a boat (ditto), your mum's friend Doreen from two doors down.

But of course, you tell yourself, these scenes are just the entrees before Emmerich furnishes us with the main course: the colossal blowing-up of shit. To give Resurgence some due, it at least bothers to find one new way of achieving this: our new alien foes have developed a means of overturning the Earth's gravity, which gives them (and the VFX team) the opportunity to suck buildings, air traffic and any other hangers-on up and fling them elsewhere rather than smashing them to smithereens on the spot. Yet so much of Insurgence's spectacle is literally throwaway, of no consequence whatsoever. The Emmerich of 1996 could make a big deal out of nuking the White House; his 2016 equivalent, sensing (rightly) that we may have seen much of this before, hastens from one green screen to the next, barely stopping to look for survivors. (And when movies, like politicians, don't appear to give a damn about we ordinary proles, why should we give a damn about them?)

The relentless cross-cutting gives Insurgence a sense of movement without momentum, undermining any attempt at pathos - this two-hour product leaves scant time for mourning - and yet the film's real failure is one of scale: that Emmerich should have squandered a ginormous budget while somehow managing to generate not a single moment of genuine wonder or horror. (The average item of Independence Day messageboard fan fiction would surely have been more inspired.) Previous alien invasions have been violent, comic, politically loaded; in the case of last year's Under the Skin, strange and beautiful simultaneously. This one has all too clearly been initiated by executives who've spent more time consulting spreadsheets than scripts: all artlessly arranged ones and zeros, it's alien invasion as here-today-gone-tomorrow content. This time round, they're here to distract us.

Independence Day: Resurgence is still playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday, 22 July 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of July 15-17, 2016:
1 (new) Ghostbusters (12A)
2 (new) Ice Age: Collision Course (U)
3 (1) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
4 (2) The Legend of Tarzan (12A)
5 (4) Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (15)
6 (new) Secret Cinema: Dirty Dancing (15) ***
7 (3) Now You See Me 2 (12A)
8 (5) Central Intelligence (12A)
9 (7) Independence Day: Resurgence (12A) **
10 (8) The Conjuring 2 (15) ** 


My top five:   
1. The Hard Stop
2. Born to be Blue
3. Chevalier [above]
4. K-Shop
5. Baskin

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) London Has Fallen (15)
2 (new) Allegiant (12)
3 (1) Bridge of Spies (12) *****
4 (new) The Big Short (15) ***
5 (2) Goosebumps (PG) ***
6 (new) The Boy (15) **
7 (3) Spotlight (15) ***
8 (4) 13 Hours (15) **
9 (6) Creed (12) ****
10 (new) High-Rise (15) ***  

My top five:  
1. Son of Saul
2. Arabian Nights
3. Zootropolis
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
5. The Witch

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Finding Nemo (Sunday, C4, 5.30pm)
2. Rear Window (Sunday, BBC2, 1.30pm)
3. Escape from Alcatraz (Sunday, C4, 12.45am)
4. Toy Story (Saturday, BBC1, 5.15pm)
5. Grease (Saturday, C4, 5.55pm)

Raw meat: "K-Shop"

It sounds horrendously lurid and exploitative - the obvious poster quote would be Death Wish meets Sweeney Todd, ideally set out in a shocking pink or ectoplasmic green hue, and with an exclamation mark appended - yet you can see exactly where Dan Pringle's thought-through genre item K-Shop is coming from: it's born out of a sincere sympathy for those unfortunates stuck behind neon-lit bakelite counters at three in the morning, frying chips and shaving doners for lairy, horny or otherwise mashed-up clubbers. We've all observed their plight; here, we're introduced to Salah (Ziad Abaza), a politics student who returns to his native Bournemouth to help his ailing father run the family kebab outlet, and winds up adding one or two items to the specials menu after his customers push him too far.

As vigilante-movie lore insists, Pringle invokes a specific set of circumstances so we might at least initially go along with the killing: the indifference of the cops who now look upon Friday night brouhaha as standard, and therefore hardly worth investigating; the callousness of a system that refuses all responsibility for Salah's father's condition; the ugly, gloating privilege of those pissheads and pillfiends who come crashing through his doors; the way certain minor celebrities appear to have money, success, women handed to them on a plate. (As a Big Brother contestant-turned-local club owner, Scot Williams does a nifty impersonation of the kind of morally vacuous Z-lister who can only dream of becoming Danny Dyer.) 

Vigilante movies have traditionally reared their ugly heads whenever and wherever a society has taken a pronounced shift to the right. K-Shop could do with a leaner cut: our patience, along with our moral flexibility, stretches only so far, and you come to feel the second half, circling around in the mire. (It also perpetuates one of this subgenre's most clanging cliches: the wall of newspaper clippings by which our so-called hero reveals his secret identity as a sociopath.) Yet on a narrative level, it actually functions far better than any of the titles in the movies' last vigilante cycle (which ran roughly from 2004 to 2009 - perhaps not coincidentally the Dubya years - and encompassed Man on Fire, The Dark Knight and The Brave One in the US, and Outlaw and Harry Brown closer to home).

Pringle identifies a recognisably grotty British milieu in the last-resort fast food stop, and proceeds through it with both an understanding of these outlets' place in modern city centres, and an eye for the skeezier fringes of the Friday and Saturday night crowd. We can safely assume the writer-director didn't have to look too far for the vignettes of aggro, banter and carnage that punctuate the film, but then the level of detail is sound throughout: even the characters' ringtones are telling. The definition of post-pub entertainment, K-Shop is also a horror movie with a (bloodied) social conscience: one to make you think twice as to how you comport yourself the next time you stagger across the threshold of Balham Fried Chicken in search of something to soak up the £1 shots or simply hold down the nausea.

K-Shop opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on August 1.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The credible hulk: "Sultan"

For Hindi cinema to become more self-aware and sophisticated in its appeal - as the modernising faction headed by writer-director-producer Anurag Kashyap would like - it may require the industry's pre-eminent stars to themselves display greater self-awareness, and leave behind the bouffant-haired hunks and eyelash-fluttering heroines of yore. This process of renewal, which has been fascinating to observe, began several years ago, but it's properly accelerated in the past twelve months, as audiences have cottoned onto what might at some stage be referred to as an Indian New Wave. After November's fitful Tamasha (a Resnais-like construction that saw Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor play variations of traditional Bollywood lovers) and April's intriguing Fan (where Shah Rukh Khan was a moviestar plagued by a stalker so representative of his own demons and insecurities he could only be played by Khan again), Sultan arrives as not nearly so knowing or playfully postmodern - it is, after all, a vehicle for Salman Khan, the least flexible of Bollywood's three King Khans. It nevertheless seems to riff on the lead's much-documented on- and off-screen travails: here is the story of a man of action having to overcome considerable personal adversity to regain his title as an ambassador for the Indian nation - and its movie-watching people.

Phase one of the Khan charm offensive came with last year's Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the Eid megahit in which the star successfully (and rather touchingly) shepherded a small child and the audience through a version of the Kashmir conflict. Phase two, which opened in the same slot this year, is effectively Khan's own The Wrestler, casting the star as Sultan Ali Khan, a humble lad from farming stock who uses his considerable bulk to become both a Commonwealth and Olympic champion before falling out of favour. The first half, an extended flashback from this moment of disgrace, gives us the backstory: how he first hit the gym upon being rejected by Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), a promising female wrestler, and eventually came to win not just several major championships but eventually this young woman's heart and hand in marriage. The second half is all comeback, wondering just what a fatneck might do with himself were he to gain the world - or the world title, at least - and suddenly lose everything he holds dearest to him.

Where there was a certain novelty in seeing Khan being sent in to sort out a real-world situation in Bajrangi Bhaijaan - and, indeed, in watching him wrestle with India's patriarchal system in last Diwali's lavish Prem Ratan Dhan Payo - Sultan operates along a conventional sports-movie arc. The world of the unfaked, Greco-Roman school of wrestling has been underexplored on screen, granted, and director Ali Abbas Zahar has the full Yash Raj budget to come up with convincing recreations of the Delhi Commonwealth and London Olympic Games. Once again, though, we're sitting through multiple examples of knockdowns and countouts as life-metaphors, backed up with the usual fast-cut training montages. (Zahar can at least punch up Sultan's country-boy background here, showing his hero not straining in some sweaty backstreet gym, rather pulling tractors and outrunning steam trains, all the while cultivating a roguish Oliver Reed moustache.) The stakes are so clearly established by the interval that there's only one trajectory the second half can follow.

Still, as January's Rocky reboot Creed demonstrated, these things can still stir an audience if done well, and Sultan is done pretty well, all things considered. It's way too long and prone to over-emphasis: far too much of the first half given over to illustrating just what an essentially great guy Khan (actor and character) is, at least one utterly superfluous love song, a second half premised on our hero's superhuman capacity to survive relentless beatings. Two elements keep us interested, though. The first is Khan himself, who's always been an imposing physical presence - here, even the muscles on his shoulder muscles appear to have muscles - but who has, over this recent run of films, become a markedly subtler performer: a director wouldn't hand his leading man this many close-ups if he felt the guy didn't know what to do with them. He retains that adenoidal quality most closely associated with The Sopranos's James Gandolfini, and uses it to sketch a character who while still not the brightest bulb - he first takes Aarfa's brush-off "shit guy" as a compliment - is at least a notch or two more intuitive than his bhai in Bajrangi, working the ring much as Khan the actor has come to work the moviegoing public.

The metatextual bonus - crystallised in the late image of Sultan wrestling with himself - is the tentative suggestion that the actor might just be using this latest vehicle to grapple with his own persona; that the humbling of Sultan Khan just before the intermission may, in fact, refer to the humbling of Salman Khan in real life. (Both involve a tragic, and almost certainly avoidable, loss of life.) If, dramatically speaking, it's something of a pity that his fictional avatar should thereafter undergo the slickest of rebranding - turning up in the octagonal MMA ring left abandoned at the end of last year's Brothers and becoming a license to print money - this development nonetheless reflects the manner in which Khan has reclaimed his own title as a box-office heavyweight, and somewhere within the triumphalism, you detect an admission on the star's part that, yes, at some point in the not-too-distant past, his ego may have got the better of him. It takes a big man to do that, just as surely as it takes a big man to carry piles of bricks over his shoulders - and a star with a sense of irony and humility to pull off all of the above in a film that also sees his character flounce off the set of a post-Olympic promo shoot, muttering "I'm a wrestler, not an actor". When even a lunk of Salman Khan's dimensions shows signs of becoming self-aware, something's very definitely afoot.

Sultan is now showing in cinemas nationwide.