Sunday, 15 January 2017

From the archive: "XXX2: The Next Level"

XXX2: The Next Level is what the world was crying out for: a Vin Diesel-less second film in the "extreme" - well, 12A-rated - Bond for dummies franchise. Samuel L. Jackson's maverick NSA chief tries to smooth the transition early on, by insisting the Agency needs someone with "more attitude" (Hollywood euphemism for a performer with darker skin) to assume the identity of bad-ass special agent Triple X. (Long-time Simpsons fans are likely to be reminded of the executive on The Itchy and Scratchy Show who insists the animators "rastafy" their in-your-face creation Poochie.) Instead of Diesel, we've ended up with former NWA and Are We There Yet? star Ice Cube, which is a bit like replacing David Beckham as England captain with Christopher Biggins, and also makes a nonsense of Jackson's self-righteous pledge to avoid films starring members of the recording industry. "Are you sure we got the right guy?," one of Jackson's flunkies wonders. Well, somebody had to ask.

Anyhow, for some reason Triple X 2.0 is installed in an abandoned Washington cinema turned joinery shop, staffed for some reason by pneumatic women in underwear that makes Jennifer Beals' choice of attire as the welder in Flashdance appear conservative. (The first greasy, lingering pan across this location reveals at least 39 clear breaches of health-and-safety regulations.) Cube's mad espionage skills include hiding behind a tray of drinks to overhear treasonous conversation, and using an array of microwaveable meals to throw off a SWAT team. Later, he will take a tank to blow up Capitol Hill. His philosophy - a bling perversion of JFK - is "don't do it for the Red, White and Blue, do it for yourself", which is very laudable, I'm sure. Director Lee Tamahori gives it the usual textures of the big-budget action sequel, it being full of metal objects going vroom or boom, with wood, plastic, or - in Cube's case - some sort of doughy substance where the flesh and blood players might usually be. It's funny for about thirty minutes, then the brain starts turning to lard.

 (April 2005)

XXX2: The Next Level is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; a sequel, XXX3: The Return of Xander Cage, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 1-8, 2016:
1 (new) Assassin's Creed (15)
2 (1) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A) **
3 (new) Silence (15) ****
4 (3) Passengers (12A) **
5 (5) Moana (PG) ****
6 (6) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A) ***
7 (new) A Monster Calls (12A) **   
8 (2) Why Him? (15)
9 (4) Monster Trucks (PG) **
10 (8) Ballerina (U) ***


My top five:   
1. Trainspotting [above]

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) Bad Moms (15) **
2 (new) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
3 (2) Finding Dory (PG) ***
4 (5) Mechanic: Resurrection (15) **
5 (3) The BFG (PG) ***
6 (4) Ghostbusters (12)
7 (new) Hell or High Water (15) ****
8 (7) David Brent: Life on the Road (15)
9 (6) Me Before You (12) ** 
10 (new) Central Intelligence (12)


My top five:  
1. Kubo and the Two Strings
2. Anthropoid
3. Julieta
4. Hell or High Water
5. Ethel & Ernest

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. On the Waterfront (Saturday, BBC2, 10.40pm)
2. Immortals (Saturday, C4, 11.30pm)
3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Saturday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
4. Basic Instinct (Friday, C4, 12.05am)
5. You've Got Mail (Sunday, five, 4.45pm)  

On DVD: "Anthropoid"

The British writer-director Sean Ellis keeps moving, tricky to pin down but ever honing his craft. In recent years, it's become clear, too, that he's finally picked a side - the right side. He took a major step forward while out in the Philippines making 2013's Metro Manila, a drama of downtrodden lives that suddenly and explosively reconfigured itself as a thriller; now we have Anthropoid, which finds Ellis heading to Prague - or a fine recreation thereof - and back into the past. This is the true story of the Czech resistance operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the country's on-the-ground Nazi commander, in the spring of 1942, and more so than the Cruise-engineered heroism of 2008's Valkyrie, Ellis is committed to showing resistance as a perilously messy business, as imperfect as it is essential. One of the two assassins introduced being parachuted into the countryside from Slovakia (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) snags a foot on a branch upon landing; their first port of call turns into a bloodbath; and upon reaching Prague, the pair learn their designated handler has been taken away by the authorities. Although they're swiftly adopted by the resistance that remains, a glimpse at the history books will show that getting close to Heydrich - never mind achieving what they've been sent here to do - was a trickier business than anybody expected.

Again, Ellis pulls off two very different movies in one. Anthropoid's first half is a quietly engrossing evocation of a city under siege, watching our heroes bed in and reach out while attempting to protect their cover - a strained business when the female agents placed on their arms at a New Year's Eve party (Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerova) are of a type that would naturally turn heads. It could equally be pointed out that both our assassins have been blessed with killer cheekbones - their real life equivalents looked less like catalogue models - but Murphy and Dornan work well together as a team, pulling each other through despairing funks even as their nervy, downturned countenances help sustain the prevailing doomy mood. Ellis needs them alert come the second half, easily one of 2016's strongest, in which the assassins, all cover blown, seek temporary sanctuary in a church. Here Ellis begins to flex his action muscles once more, the Nazi big guns are wheeled out, and death really does appear to close in on our heroes, frame by frame; it's just a matter of how long they can fend it off before reaching for the cyanide capsules. The result is an unusually tense, tough tribute, and further evidence that Ellis sits among our industry's most improved: one of the few British filmmakers at large to be getting more accomplished with each new release.

Anthropoid is available on DVD through Icon Entertainment from Monday.   

"The Bye Bye Man" (Guardian 13/01/17)

The Bye Bye Man *
Dir: Stacy Title. With: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas, Carrie-Anne Moss. 96 mins. Cert: 15

Every Friday the 13th, Mammon demands another teenbait horrorshow with which to befoul multiplexes. Here we find former indie spirit Stacy Title (Let the Devil Wear Black) schlocking out, possibly explaining the incongruous Rilke quotations and alt-rock T-shirts adorning this otherwise artless shambles, a Candyman shorn of all subtexts. Three blandies install themselves in ominously spacious student digs and – after aeons of poking about that suggest Scream never happened – inadvertently summon the titular fiend, a Poundland Voldemort whose name spawns a handy dual-action mantra-cum-strapline: “Don’t think it, don’t say it.” (To which some wag has doubtless already appended “Don’t see it.”)

Even at its copout conclusion – blatantly shilling for sequels – there’s marked editorial confusion as to how this boogeyman presents, beyond the usual loud farts on the soundtrack. (The students’ coughing and hallucinations could as likely be a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.) Half-hearted digging into Old Bye Bye’s genesis occasions direly acted flashbacks and meetings with expositional librarians, but curiously not the gore young adults might in good faith have paid to see. There’s not a memorable kill in these 96 minutes, and one fatal shotgun blast leaves behind only a light grey smear, as though the effects team had popped out for Hobnobs.

Title’s other notional wows include a cameo from the same Hollywood great who signed up to be molested by a monkey in 1996’s Dunston Checks In, but the ensuing huffing-and-puffing proves typical of a film more often unintentionally amusing than jolting in any way. It’s the kind of stopgap, date-dependent junk where an establishing shot of a college campus cues several bars of a composer trying to remember how The Social Network sounded, and where the students pursue their nemesis via a search engine called “Search”, because nobody associated with the project elected to surrender a single bright idea in return for their paycheque.

The Bye Bye Man is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

On DVD: "The BFG"

Some films you emerge from wondering why it is Hollywood, with all the resources at its disposal, can no longer tell us a good bedtime story; emerging from The BFG, you start wondering what the collective noun is for such an illustrious confluence of yarnspinners. (A loom, maybe?) This is, of course, Roald Dahl, as brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg, working from a script that was the last completed by the late Melissa Mathison (E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial). At its best, the completed film offers the astonishing possibility that Spielberg might still, at the grand old age of 70, be learning on the job: for one thing, he's figured out how to handle beloved formative material with far more love and care than was bestowed upon 2011's weightless, therefore throwaway mo-cap Tintin adaptation. 

There are early collywobbles, certainly: the prologue, set in a hodgepodge CG London, suggests we're in for more by-the-digital-yard fantasy, indistinguishable from the last half-dozen Tim Burton movies; these scenes are neither Dahlish nor Spielbergian enough. Yet the film assumes a greater reality - or, rather, its fantasy becomes more assured and consistent - once the titular giant scoops up young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, sparky) and carries her away to Giant Country. Here, Spielberg allows his audience to marvel at the landscape - the now-standard mix of pixels and top-notch production design - rather than just whizzing us mindlessly through it, as he did in the Tintin film. He has one magnificent fixed point in the BFG himself, conceived - and here the credit must be split equally between Dahl, Spielberg, Mathison and Mark Rylance, the performer wired up for the occasion - as an eccentric bachelor, ostracised by the grunting alphas of his tribe for his flowery speaking patterns and committed vegetarianism. (In his own words, he "don't eat human beans".) 

What Mathison has preserved, beneath the digital bells and whistles, is the bond between a girl who needs protection and an old codger who plainly needs the company - an emotional throughline that also leads us to reflect on Spielberg's own trajectory from wide-eyed movie brat to latter-day greybeard, the Mr. Reliable we turn to for comfort and reassurance in a world that elsewhere seems to change by the day. If The BFG has anything in common with the director's previous film Bridge of Spies beyond the presence of Rylance in some form, it's the delight both movies take in companionship - in having another person around to talk to, share one's fragile hopes and dreams with, perhaps even chuckle when someone lets rip with a whizzpopping fart. Spielberg has never been fashionable, but over the past three decades, no-one has come close to surpassing him as American cinema's foremost humanist.

I think we might nevertheless note that something has changed in the transition from E.T.'s rubber suit to the BFG's digital carapace, and not necessarily for the better. Commercial pressures have meant directors of family films in the VFX era have increasingly had to start thinking of their projects in terms of eye-catching, trailer-ready setpieces rather than the nuts-and-bolts business of plot progression or character beats, and even the Mathison-Spielberg powerhouse has had to concede this: The BFG can't go ten minutes without some 3D-justifying hurlyburly that overturns all the matter in any given location and distracts the viewer, without appearing to alter the film's dramatic stakes one jot. (Of all last year's major studio releases aimed at pre-teens, only the fully animated Kubo and the Two Strings pushed against this trend and placed its faith in the audience having some residual attention span - and yet that film struggled to claw back its budget.)

Yet whenever it slows down and falls into Dahl's own rhythms - explaining, for example, just how the giant goes about collecting and creating dreams (metaphor for writing/filmmaking/any creative process ahoy!), or having him sit down for a slap-up meal at Buckingham Palace with Eileen Atkins' Queen (punchline: turbo-trumping Corgis), or simply opening up this old man's big flappy ears to the heartfelt words of a vulnerable young girl - the film is genuinely, sincerely charming, the version of The BFG you may at some point have hoped that Steven Spielberg would get round to making. The book is better, and will cast a longer lasting spell on any youngsters you may have to hand - but we could probably have taken that as read; while no immediate classic, the film's really not bad.

The BFG is now available on DVD through Entertainment One.   

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Homecoming: "Manchester by the Sea"

In decades to come, the career of the writer-director Kenneth Lonergan will likely be taught in film schools as an object lesson in what happened to the American cinema in the first years of the 21st century. Where graduates of the music video and advertising industries were handed blank cheques to set off all manner of explosions, Lonergan has had to bow and scrape to assemble three movies in 17 years, one of which was all but buried by the studio that funded it. Manchester by the Sea, the third of these films, marks a return to the familial tensions and unhappy homecomings of Lonergan's 2000 debut You Can Count on Me, and a return to something else, too: that more adult form of drama the major studios have abandoned to cable television and streaming services in their rush to recoup easy superhero bucks. That it should return in a movie backed by the emergent Amazon Studios is an irony it would take a grown-up to recognise.

The first sign we aren't being spoonfed, rather left to feel our own way into this story, is that Lonergan has created a protagonist who isn't of a mood to let anybody in without a lot of hard work. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a bluff, solitary janitor, entrenched in a snowy Boston, who spends what seems like the entire first act engaged in the thankless task of trying to keep his tenants' front steps free from precipitation; by night, for his own entertainment, he gets angry-drunk and seeks out his next barfight. This grim routine is interrupted when news breaks that his brother Joe has died, returning him to the frozen-over childhood home enshrined in the title. In Manchester, Lee is greeted with gasps and mutters that speak to his infamy among the female townsfolk; his arrival also sparks flashbacks that seek to explain how we got here from there. In these, the Lee we see is a family man and - most crucially of all - a happy drunk. What happened?

It's soon clear that returning to a home without an obvious father figure confers a new-found responsibility on Lee's shoulders: one of his tasks in Manchester is to shepherd Joe's son - and his nephew - Patrick (Lucas Hedges), an especially hormonal teenager negotiating that formative moment when a boy first invites his gal to stay over, although Lee's response, when asked whether he might be open to a longer-term custody arrangement, is a shrugging "I'm just the back-up." On television, Manchester by the Sea would be one of those sitcoms in which an individual wholly unsuited to parenthood and domesticity has those very conditions imposed upon him - except that situation plays out here in a starkly muted palette, and with the understanding we're heading not towards a group hug, but the cause of Lee's hurt. This, it turns out, is a tragically simple mistake, one by which Lonergan can acknowledge luck - pure, dumb luck - as a defining (and perhaps the defining) facet of our existence.

The masterstroke is that the film is never allowed to seem schematic or predetermined. Having set all this down on paper, Lonergan the director allows his scenes to breathe, the better to allow us to scope out this location, with its piled snowbanks and bracing marine breezes, and to allow his expert cast to squabble and bicker and thereby rough up his dialogue into something like life. The big difference between Lonergan and other playwrights-turned-directors is that he's never precious: the film may have the trappings of tragedy, but - scene by scene - it assumes the unpredictable rhythms of a comedy. There is, for starters, a sly background joke here about the kind of hard-grafting, hard-drinking family of blue-collar men it might be tough, if not impossible, for anybody of a more sensitive disposition to peaceably co-exist with; and yet the priapic Patrick (whose irrepressible horniness is such you'll never hear the phrase "logging off" in quite the same way again) is a blast of useful energy who gives the jaded Lee the momentum he needs to rebuild.

The actors, necessarily, seem alert to every possibility. Affleck, in an indelible portrait of damaged, emotionally inarticulate masculinity, appears beset by an ongoing internal tumult that spills out in harsh words and thrown punches; we sense the softness and joy taken from him at a pivotal moment, but he also allows us to note Lee taking on some of his late brother's stability. (In a smart casting coup, Joe is played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler, whose square-jawed solidity has been the bedrock of recent small-screen dramas, from Friday Night Lights to Bloodline.) The supporting players work wonders, too, often with just a clutch of Lonergan's lines to equip themselves with: Gretchen Mol as Joe's wife, understandably exasperated by all the testosterone; Tate Donovan, late of Damages, lending additional heft to a one-scene bit as Patrick's ice hockey coach. (It appears part of Lonergan's project is to reclaim fine performers from the blue-chip TV dramas in which they've been hiding out.)

Best of all, perhaps, is Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife Randi, just smart enough to have spotted the protagonist's festering resentment at his fate, and to have walked away some time ago: the tentative reunion she and Affleck share on an ordinary street corner will be one of the most affecting encounters you'll witness in a cinema all year. In such sure hands, Manchester by the Sea comes to assume far greater shape and purpose than Lonergan's grand film maudit Margaret, that moral maze that turned into a logjam both before and behind the camera. Here, the director and his players mould everyday conversations such as these - with their awkward pauses and reachouts, their sudden flurries of disaccord - into the kind of drama we relate to and involve ourselves with because it speaks eloquently to those struggles and battles we face at every turn in the road. Two or three more of these things, and we might read the first of the thinkpieces about cinema rising from the dead.

Manchester by the Sea opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.  

Monday, 9 January 2017

The dreamers: "La La Land"

It will depend on what kind of escapism you go in search of, this second week in January. Damien Chazelle's heavily touted musical La La Land might usefully be approached and considered as 2017's The Artist, which is to say a novelty hit that wowed and seduced the first responders at Cannes in the summer, then rode out the inevitable waves of critical backlash to secure itself a clutch of Best Picture nominations as the year wore itself out. It is also, not coincidentally, a movie about the movies, and the reasons why we might persevere with them in the face of all the world's Paul Blarts: chiefly, the eternal yearning to see handsome fellows and pretty girls fall into stride, and thereby occasion a harmony that might be denied to us in the world beyond the multiplex.

On a comparatively banal level, the film is also Chazelle's immediate follow-up to his 2014 breakthrough Whiplash - and, in several respects, an extension of it, unfurled in a Cinemascope ratio that literally broadens this talented filmmaker's horizons. The progress of struggling jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) and aspirant actress Mia (Emma Stone) through latter-day L.A. once again frames an idea of music as a force that, in gathering up the emotions of everyday life, comes somehow to be larger than life - a pursuit that might, if we're lucky, eventually validate our earthly struggles, our rehearsal-room blood, sweat and tears, and elevate all our creative endeavours to the stars.

La La Land sporadically does thoughtful, even clever things with its music, transporting us up and down the keyboard just as the narrative whizzes us back and forth in time, reassuring us with the reveal that the naff-awful cover version of "Take On Me" heard at the start of one party scene is, in fact, being played within the scene by a naff-awful covers band. Of Justin Hurwitz's original songs, however, the news is less good. These are passable, in a someone's-written-old-timey-showtunes way, but they are, very audibly, the work of someone working night and day to write old-timey showtunes, rather than, say, connecting specific emotions to specific melodies to create something memorable and fresh.

I spent most of the musical numbers wishing somebody in the wake of Whiplash's success had introduced Chazelle to Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne genius who penned the retro-leaning breakout hits of That Thing You Do! and Damsels in Distress. Schlesinger has a gift of making his pastiche sound effortless - like fresh-off-the-piano pop, rather than slavish tribute act. (Chazelle is so close to this it's frustrating: he's savvy enough to cast That Thing's Tom Everett Scott in a key role, leaving him precisely one Kevin Bacon degree away from greatness.) Perhaps there is an innocence the movies can never get back, however much we might long for it: whenever Gosling and Stone break out in flurries of dance, on a side road in the Hills or inside the Griffith Observatory, it's now impossible not to see the punishingly long hours of choreography required for these performers to hit their marks before the cameras. It's meant to be casual; instead, it has the look of a hard shoe shuffle.

The film's pleasures, then, are chiefly non-musical: a certain feeling or mood. Gosling and Stone shared the better scenes in 2011's pretty throwaway Crazy, Stupid, Love., and their fizzy chemistry cuts through some of La La's more ersatz elements. It's irksome they should bond over jazz and movie references, but then here are a couple of kids with too much time (and not enough work) on their hands, hanging out in quiet pockets of a metropolis indifferent to their presence, forging their own connection and rhythms, a conspiracy we feel lucky indeed to be let in on. We sense this relationship is heading somewhere when they lean in to share a first kiss at the cinema - pure movie love - and the film they're meant to be watching (Rebel Without a Cause, in glorious Technicolor) burns up in the projector; they'll set off a smoke alarm in the course of their first argument as a couple.

As 12A-rated evocations of heat go, all this is enjoyable enough, but you might just wish Chazelle had given his leads something more profound to do than fall repeatedly in and out of love. (And even as I write that sentence, a voice in my head is insisting there may be nothing more profound to do than fall in and out of love: Chazelle is counting on this.) On one level, The Artist was about an individual discovering he had a voice, a subtext that had obvious metaphorical applications beyond the movies; if La La Land deigns to float anything so burdensome as a subtext, it concerns outsiders being embraced (or rejected) by the mainstream, which obviously reflects Chazelle's position as an independent spirit being welcomed in from the cold, but simply may not play with anyone who doesn't regard their life as what X Factor contestants refer to as "a journey". For better and worse, this is a film only someone who's succeeded in showbusiness gets to make.

The rest of us are free to take refuge in the look of the thing. For after a decade and a half of greasy, blurry, dashed-off-on-digital doodles, here is the return of Film - a film shot on film, as were Singin' in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort before it. With its candied colour-matching and sundown skies, La La Land is rarely less than incandescent to behold, cinematographer Linus Sandgren working with grading technology that wasn't available to Jacques Demy, let alone Vincente Minnelli. The resulting lush flatness may be the best advertisement for the movies a young writer-director could have produced as 2016 ceded to 2017, and those "Is Cinema Dead?" thinkpieces began to stack up; it will also surely make for a lovely moment on Oscar night, as Ryan and Emma trot out one or other of the year's Best Original Song nominees. Keep in mind, though, that La La Land may only be an advert, gorgeous but ephemeral, selling us nothing more lasting than a pocketful of perishable, non-refundable dreams.

La La Land opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.