Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Signs and blunders: "Under the Silver Lake"

It wasn't always like this. After making Stranger than Paradise, the ramshackle, micro-budgeted roadtrip that inaugurated the modern American independent cinema, Jim Jarmusch returned with Down by Law, a movie that confined its characters to a single prison cell. Yet as money began to flood into the indie sector, and wider audiences were reached, the temptation to swing for the fences with the follow-up to a breakthrough work became too great to resist. We can see that urge in Spike Lee going from the scratchy, intimate She's Gotta Have It to the state-of-the-nation musical School Daze, though one could argue the latter film developed logically from its predecessor's Technicolor dance sequence, and paved the way for the landmark Do the Right Thing; it was central to Steven Soderbergh's haphazard progression from the cool minimalism of sex, lies & videotape to the wild Expressionism of Kafka. The process has become time-honoured, yielding as many misses as outright hits. Most would be thankful that Paul Thomas Anderson overcame his disappointments on Hard Eight to arrive at the jubilant Boogie Nights, yet Richard Kelly similarly went for bust in leaping from the whisperingly suggestive Donnie Darko to the carnivalesque Southland Tales, and look where that got him. Next up at the plate: David Robert Mitchell, who follows 2010's atmospheric coming-of-ager The Myth of the American Sleepover and 2014's bristling horror parable It Follows with his own jejune blowout Under the Silver Lake, in which shaggy-haired slacker Andrew Garfield is beset by two-and-a-half-hours' worth of conspiracies and coincidences in latter-day L.A.

Mitchell's previous, entirely self-contained films were very selective in what they ruled in and out. Silver Lake, vastly more voracious in what it sees and references, sets forth multiple mysteries for Garfield's accidental private-eye Sam to investigate. There is the disappearance of the lissom blonde neighbour (Riley Keough) Sam peeps on from his balcony; a secondary vanishing act involving a prominent businessman; and a third line of inquiry circling a figure referred to as the Dog Killer, whose existence is set up by some mumbo-jumbo about a studio-system outcast who shot himself on camera in protest at the attention afforded to a Rin Tin Tin-like pooch. It is quickly established that multiple elements are in play here. Warnings encoded in the pages of comic books, old hobo symbols, back episodes of Wheel of Fortune, details on the dollar bill, the lyrics to R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?": everything is lingered over and dwelt upon at length, and there is always some towering, nefarious subterfuge going on just out of shot or behind the reality our hero-surrogate is presented with. This means the foreground turns into a sushi-bar conveyor belt of red herrings, some of which prove tastier than others. The approach generates a whole lot of movie - shot by shot, sequence by sequence, we catch Mitchell borrowing from Lynch and Hitch and Marty and Bob (Altman), most of the good ones - and yet the film's eyes are substantially bigger than its belly, leaving a lot of its raw visual and thematic material undigested, possibly indigestible. It's not a spoiler so much as a warning to note that none of the aforementioned mysteries will be cleared up with any degree of clarity.

The sprawl is such that it might be instructive to try and pin down what connects Silver Lake to its predecessors in the Mitchell canon. From Sam's opening gawp at his topless and semi-clad neighbours, the new film appears to share It Follows' (naggingly conservative) fascination with sex, and its capacity to warp, corrupt, derange. (The Lynch comparisons write themselves.) Garfield's knight errant seemingly sets out on his cherchez la femme mission because he felt he was onto a sure thing; his obsession will carry this feckless soul from sunny L.A. poolside to the city's darker fringes, from a position of peeper-power up top to the cavernous depths of the Earth, where he will be revealed as basically powerless. An early snippet of dialogue pertaining to the male gaze suggests Mitchell isn't wholly behind the curve when it comes to recent developments in film and social studies, but he has a funny-strange way of showing it, repeatedly turning his camera onto women in states of undress. (Being a big-shot auteur means you can persuade more actresses to pop their tops.) Only one moment of voyeurism is effective enough to justify the clanging shot of minor characters lolling against a tombstone marked "HITCHCOCK", and it comes when a pal of Sam's pilots a drone towards the open window of a lingerie model who removes her shirt only to break down in thoroughly unerotic tears. Somewhere in Silver Lake, there's a cautionary tale about the dangers that follow from falling down any rabbit hole: the risk of not seeing what you want to see or, worse, seeing nothing very much at all. 

That film would surely have gone more forcefully after what Sam's pal labels "an entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes..."; it would have cleared more space for us to notice how our notional hero gets stinkier, less mobile and less likable the further he pursues whatever it is he's pursuing, and starts lashing out at anybody he feels stands between him and his ill-defined goal. The trouble with the Silver Lake we have is that, at some point, Mitchell seems to have realised that those mewling fanboys are precisely (and almost exclusively) his core audience - or not to have noticed that he's one himself, instantly squishing any distance between filmmaker and intended target. Vast stretches here depend upon the viewer sharing the utterly suggestible Sam's fascination with babbling gibberish, and you sense Mitchell, too, getting carried away with this madness - tossing in theories, piling on conjecture, panic-buying every urban legend he can - and then self-evidently struggling to cut it all back into coherent shape. The film's paranoiac, throbbing-veined mania is meant to be intriguing and alluring - "Crazy makes for good sex", says that pal, of a woman, naturally - but Under the Silver Lake's narrative designs struck this viewer as inseparable from the moment of Pizzagate, the anti-vaccination movement and Brexit: they're born of a time when supposedly mature and rational human beings have been invited to disregard anything so dull as established, linear facts in order to feel like the chosen ones. (The pictures coming in, these past few days, from Nigel Farage's "Leave Means Leave" march reveal a more banal reality.)

This monument to contemporary cuckoodom has been assembled by a creative with a legitimate big-screen sensibility for the express purpose of being deconstructed and obsessed about on certain Internet forums for months and years to come - but as with so many of the topics currently sucking time and energy online, I'm not so sure there's all that much in the way of substance to get obsessed about here; that all the film is, ultimately, is a mystery premised on the search for mystery, a clever concept that, in practice, generates only partially satisfying results, at best. Among these 139 minutes' fleeting, minor pleasures: Garfield's rabbity run and sulky teenage trudge, which are exactly those your common-or-garden incel might use to haul themselves up from their parents' basement upon reading Marvel have greenlit another female-led superhero movie, and one throwaway line of Hollywood chatter, pertaining to the youngest person ever to have written, directed and sound-designed their own sitcom ("She's twelve, but she clearly has an old soul"), which indicates Mitchell hasn't completely lost his bearings. Yet all other referents would point to the fact you'd do better tracking down the seasoned Jonathan Nossiter's far less self-consciously cult indie Signs & Wonders from 2005, a film that shaped its maddening, overblown chaos into an appreciable critique of late capitalism, rather than - as Mitchell's swing-and-a-miss proves - something wearyingly symptomatic of its indulgences.

Under the Silver Lake is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via MUBI.

Monday, 18 March 2019

From the archive: "Sharkwater"

A big-screen refutation of all those "Shark Weekends" that have suddenly proliferated on certain cable channels, the documentary Sharkwater opens with a montage of movie shark attacks sourced from Jaws, Deep Blue Sea and elsewhere, then redresses the balance by stressing the shark's importance as the big fish in our ecosystem. Our host is the boyish Rob Stewart, a buff Frankie Muniz lookalike who has as obvious a bond with his subjects as Steve Irwin has with crocodiles and Grizzly Man's Timothy Treadwell had with the bears of Alaska. (It's only natural that, at several points in the film, you do rather fear for his existence.) Stewart tours the globe, swimming with hammerheads in the Galapagos, before hitching a ride with environmental activist Paul Watson, who drives his boat - customised with Boadicea-like spikes on its side - into any whaling vessels he encounters; when Watson states "our objective is to rock the boat", it's clear he speaks metaphorically and literally. En route, all manner of pertinent info gets dispensed: despite the fact more people are killed by elephants and tigers each year than by sharks - more people, in fact, are killed by vending machines - the world's shark population has been reduced by ninety percent in recent times.

You could therefore call Sharkwater a PR job, intended to reframe the shark as less aggressor than victim: of (illegal) long-line fishing, the boom in shark-fin products in certain Asian markets, the pollution man has pumped into the ocean, and the widespread indifference of a world prepared to bring in legislation against whaling, but - perhaps wary of the shark's reputation - no comparable laws against shark poaching. Those sharp, sharp teeth, and the primal fear of the monster rising from the deep, so skilfully evoked by Jaws, ensure it's a tough task. Yet Stewart trained as an underwater photographer, and he knows how to put on screen the vast array of beauty in the ocean: with its footage of whales, turtles and tunnel-like shoals of fish, the film frequently reminds us where Finding Nemo found its inspiration. It's a nature doc that goes beyond the call of duty - as much Donal MacIntyre as David Attenborough, Stewart is arrested at one point, contracts a flesh-eating disease elsewhere, and risks the wrath of the "shark fin Mafia" in several secret filming sorties - and which may even change your mind about creatures presented here as a good deal more intelligent and peaceable, and much less venal, than the hunter's hunters. Thinking back to Deep Blue Sea: is it not possible Samuel L. Jackson got chomped because the sharks sensed all those soulless ad campaigns for which the actor was about to sign up?

(June 2008)

Sharkwater is available on DVD through Showbox Media; a sequel, Sharkwater: Extinction, opens this Friday, and will be reviewed here in the days ahead.

Friday, 15 March 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of March 8-10, 2019:

1 (new) Captain Marvel (12A) ***
2 (1) Fighting with My Family (12A)
3 (2) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***
4 (3) Instant Family (12A) ***
5 (4) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
6 (5) Green Book (12A) **
7 (6) The Aftermath (15)
8 (8) The Kid Who Would Be King (PG) ***
9 (new) The Sleeping Beauty - Bolshoi Ballet (U)
10 (7) Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. Benjamin
2. The Kindergarten Teacher
3. Alien
4. Sauvage
5. The Hole in the Ground

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (1) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
2 (2) A Star is Born (15) ***
3 (5) The Grinch (U)
4 (7) Venom (15)
5 (4) Hunter Killer (15) **
6 (6) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
7 (3) Halloween (18)
8 (10) The Greatest Showman (PG)
9 (17) Widows (15) ****
10 (13) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Widows
2. Wildlife
3. The Wild Pear Tree
4. The Guilty
5. RBG

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Die Hard with a Vengeance (Thursday, five, 11pm)
2. American Hustle (Sunday, C4, 1.05am)
3. A Knight's Tale [above] (Saturday, five, 10.25am)
4. The Ones Below (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Behind the Candelabra (Saturday, BBC2, 10.45pm)

From the archive: "American Hustle"

American Hustle, the latest of David O. Russell’s experiments in interpersonal chemistry, throws together twin pairs of actor-atoms who’ve previously fizzed under the observance of this director: Christian Bale and Amy Adams from 2010’s volatile The Fighter, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from last year’s no less effervescent Silver Linings Playbook.

Those crowdpleasers described several wild mood swings, but the new film is wildly unstable in form from the off: it shapes up as a love triangle that becomes a quadrangle, then a pentangle, then just a tangle, but only after assimilating the look of a gritty, Serpico-like period crime drama, and then the slick momentum of an Ocean’s 11-style caper.

Russell decks out this expanding test area in expensively gaudy design – not since Boogie Nights has there been this much polyester and hairspray visible on screen, so much static in the air – to embellish his apparently true story: that of two medium-level New York con artists (Bale and Adams) who, in the late 1970s, found themselves recruited by an ambitious Fed (Cooper) to take down the corrupt mayor of Atlantic City.

All is never quite as it appears in a Russell movie, however, and American Hustle acknowledges as much by casting the soft, sincere-seeming Jeremy Renner as said Mayor, a boyish gladhander caught trying to make his small corner of the world a better place. That we can’t really trust any of these guys is apparent the instant Russell cuts away from Bale and Adams’ growing bond to show the former already has a girl waiting at home for him: a single mother (Lawrence) he’s been attempting to provide for.

The film, written by Russell with Eric Singer, takes great glee in besmirching the generally uneventful Jimmy Carter years, by suggesting that such graft – represented here by fake sheikhs touting suitcases full of cash – was as prevalent in the America of the late 70s as it was in the Nixon era, and as it is today; it suggests that these characters’ “empty deals” would only proliferate during the 80s and 90s, and come back to haunt us during the present banking crisis. Like it or not, everybody gets corrupted somewhere along the line.

What redeems American Hustle from its own cynicism is an inspired underlying gag. While everyone on screen has their eye on the prize, no-one has the merest semblance of control – and Russell and Singer make not just palatable but winning entertainment from the sight of characters who, skeezy as they may be, come to realise they’re actually just too nice to be sullying their hands with this kind of lowdown dirty work.

It isn’t enough now to say that Russell, once thought of as something of a pop Cassavetes, is an actor’s director: he’s a one-man Large-Hadron collider, smashing stars together to tremendous effect. These actors were surely held in isolation between takes, and then pressured to make every moment their own personal awards clip. It’s nice when they click – and they do, often, and in unpredictable ways – but collision and conflict comes to seem unavoidable.

Even the more relaxed stretches yield pleasing effects: a nice bit for comedian Louis CK as Cooper’s deskbound superior, trying desperately to impart some wisdom in the form of a story about icefishing that crystallises the film’s love of slippery, hard-to-read narratives, a marshalling of choice period soundtrack items that borders on the Scorsese-ish, and not incidentally establishes Steely Dan as cool once again.

And when the film amps up the heat – as by having Adams hold out on Cooper (doing his best impression of a man who hasn’t been laid for a really long while), or introducing the Mob in the form of a surprise element from Russell’s recent back catalogue – it starts pinging and sparking at another level entirely. Some films don’t require a star rating, but a Geiger counter – and American Hustle registers as mostly off-the-scale.

(MovieMail, December 2013)

American Hustle screens on Channel 4 this Sunday at 1.05am.

From the archive: "Behind the Candelabra"

It could almost be the result of a random movie project generator. Your subject is “the life of Liberace”. Your director? “Steven Soderbergh”. Next around on the wheel: “Todd Haynes” (who has some form with tragic showbiz stories and 70s kitsch) and “Michael Bay” (who might have taken a decidedly heteronormative approach to all the spectacle and boom-bang-a-bang hot-tub action).

Which is to note that Behind the Candelabra could have gone any which way, whether descending into terminal TV-movie worthiness (Soderbergh’s backers were the cable channel HBO, after all) or overdoing the swishing comedy and campy excess. The surprise, even among Soderbergh devotees, may be how restrained the film is: rooted in character, yet shot at arm’s length, with – one scene-setting burst of Giorgio Moroder aside – no music other than Liberace’s own to let us know where and how to feel.

For most of the film, we’re stranded on another planet, in the furthest outreaches of the showbiz galaxy – the tactics only helping to flag up the peculiarity and singularity of the world our entry point, Liberace’s all-American boytoy Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, repositioned somewhere between glowing farmhand and porno-Adonis), first strutted into circa 1977.

Part Saddam’s palace, part Paris Hilton pied-à-terre, the Casa de Liberace – a truly fabulous feat of production design by Howard Cummings – is a vast self-pleasuring splurge of homoerotic frescos and glittering trinkets, sandwiched by matching keyboard-themed canopies and floor tiles, and serviced by condescending houseboys in glute-hugging slacks.

Somewhere in there lurks its presiding intelligence, regarding the universe entire as something to be remodelled in his own image. When “Lee” Liberace (Michael Douglas, uncanny) baldly states “I was the first person on TV to look directly into the camera” (surely disregarding the contributions of countless newscasters?), we twig it’s highly likely he did so not so much for the connection with the audience as to catch his own reflection in the lens.

Soderbergh’s manner here is only slightly more relaxed. Wry amusement, drafting in a Rob Lowe or Dan Aykroyd to pep up individual scenes, gives way – as in a couple of graphic surgery interludes, stitched together to comprise the recent cinema’s grisliest makeover montage – to something more scientific. He’s compelled to ask how someone would go about getting a facelift or chin implant to look more like their younger self, or someone else. And, more crucially: why?

Naturally, it boils down to need and control, showbusiness’s twin engines since the year dot. Scott’s foster parents, a picture of normality, wonder why one grown man would want to adopt another, and such questions linger; there are dom-sub relationships, and then there’s the plain weird, and Soderbergh makes this one appear more unfathomable yet by framing it as glimpses through doors and in mirrors. Not even he attempts to get between these two, and whatever it was they had.

Shrewdly, Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese realise you can’t use this relationship to bang the drum for gay marriage, because a) Lee and Scott’s coupling couldn’t be tied in a neat knot, and b) it’s every bit as likely to alienate as it is to enthral. What the film can do, however, is put forward a case for Liberace as a true one-of-a-kind, a distinction even the pianist’s detractors might just nod through.

The appreciation of Liberace’s musical talents remains surprisingly unironic right from his introduction, performing a boogie-woogie routine that has the adoring greyhairs that made up his core crowd eating out of his hand – the kind of effortless showmanship that an up-down auteur like Soderbergh can only concede is difficult to maintain. Yet it’s balanced by an understanding of the off-stage torments that resulted from Lee’s desperate desire for image-control: if the film absolutely has to be taken up as a campaigning text, it might just work as a call to greater honesty among our entertainers.

You may be tickled, you may well be moved by the final moments, in which something like emotion (transcendent kitsch, maybe) bleeds into Soderbergh’s traditionally clinical worldview. Yet I suspect you can’t fail to notice the distinct chill of horror that lurks behind this candelabra, and which Soderbergh points up with his every detached camera angle.

Between the bodily transformations, the displays of human weakness, and the lawyers circulating within a world it proves very easy to get sucked into, and mortally difficult to escape from, the Soderbergh film Behind the Candelabra has most in common with isn’t the glitzy Ocean’s 11, nor last year’s whooping, hollering Magic Mike.

It’s 1991’s infamously unloved Kafka, from the stumbling beginnings of this director’s ever-confounding and varied career – and if Soderbergh can finally turn the raw materials of that flop into a lamé-covered, diamond-studded hit while effectuating his own escape from the entertainment business, it’ll be a remarkable note to go out on.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Behind the Candelabra screens on BBC2 tomorrow night at 10.45pm.

"I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts" (Guardian 15/03/19)

I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts ***
Dir: Yusuf Zine. Documentary with: Jaber Mohammed, Mohammed Rafiqu, Rasel Mohammed, Parvin Aktar. 90 mins. No cert.

The levels of displacement in today’s world are such it has become possible to make a film about the plight of Burma’s indigenous Rohingya people without travelling beyond a few snowy blocks in Toronto. Yusuf Zine’s documentary provides a platform for those younger migrants whose parents fled persecution by the Burmese government to tell their stories twice over – first on camera to the director, who’s spent the past few years assisting the Canadian social services, then on stage in a college-theatre production workshopped from their experiences. The resulting film forms another of this century’s lessons in how profound trauma can be worked through and converted into art, applause, affirmation, acknowledgement.

Initially, the handling might appear a shade too light and bright for the subject matter, like an episode of Glee shifted several degrees north. Yet it proves a considered editorial tactic: Zine wants us to see his charges as peppy, upbeat individuals – kids who’ve wholeheartedly embraced the chance they’ve been handed for a better life, including the prospect of a creative career – before he reframes them as victims and survivors. When we learn what exactly these ingenues have been through – and the dramaturgy reveals a distressing litany of mutilations, rapes and bereavements – their optimism seems not just admirable, but an act of defiance, a counterblast against the limited future their oppressors had in mind for them.

Though the rehearsal footage is as sketchy as rehearsal footage tends to be, Zine has the sense to fold his cast-sourced anecdotes into the strongest potted history the movies have so far provided of this situation. Confounding ironies are flagged up, not least that it should be Burma’s notionally peaceable Buddhist majority who’ve carried out the attacks, with the apparent blessing of the Nobel Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi. (Luc Besson’s fawning 2011 biopic The Lady recedes even further in the memory.) Should you need further proof of the ways Trumpism has oozed into the political water table, clock the robed Canadian monk Zine films blithely belittling the Rohingya’s claims as “fake news”. Its status as a grassroots endeavour is evident in some modest production values, but it succeeds in conveying a good deal of pertinent info while simultaneously putting on a half-decent show.

I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts is now playing in selected cinemas. 

"90 Minutes" (Guardian 15/03/19)

90 Minutes **
Dir: Simon Baker. With: Robert Ristic, Peyvand Sadeghian, Leon Sua, Anton Saunders. 86 mins. Cert: 18.

A decade on from teaming Danny Dyer, 50 Cent and Brenda Blethyn for 2009’s bargain-bin circler Dead Man Running, Rio Ferdinand re-enters the world of lowish-budget film production with a quasi-real time drama centred on those lads and lasses (mostly lads) drawn to the rough-and-tumble of the Hackney Marshes’ weekend leagues. Yet despite the title’s ticking clock, writer-director Simon Baker’s mudbound mosaic exhibits a shambling quality that suggests a slacker Slacker, passing the ball from character to character without ever quite doing anything interesting with it. An hour in, two spectators – in an echo of those epochal McCain’s ads – start pondering whether it’s chips for tea; play is rather shruggingly abandoned at the 86-minute mark. One way or another, you emerge shortchanged. 

Baker deserves some credit for wrongfooting us. A prevalence of lairy geezers in the opening scenes establishes expectations of another casual crime story, yet what follows operates in an insistently minor, observational key. These blokes are all talk in short trousers, scrapping it out only on the pitch while communing in that musky banter (“Shave your fuckin’ balls, lads, Magaluf ‘ere we come!”) which doubtless goes over like gangbusters in the back row of the minibus. The DVD, when it emerges in the coming weeks, could conceivably be repackaged with the Lynx Africa giftset. Still, viewers drawn here by the footballing connection will likely be those most disappointed by the lack of straightforward action: Baker cuts all this dialogue with negligible non-highlight packages of skied crosses and shinned chances.

Ferdinand nabs himself a funny cameo, seen shooting the breeze with Jody Morris during one of several lulls in play, and Anton Saunders is a credibly grizzled presence as the coach incurring major aggro on the touchlines, but the squad’s younger talent have to make do with showreel-bound snippets that don’t add up to a movie. It remains oddly likable, with attractive aerial photography of the Marshes themselves, and its mazy narrative dribbles bring it within touching distance of a better film: with Chelsea money and a few more drafts, Baker might have arrived at a matchday fresco that merited the Altman comparisons he surely set out looking for. As it stands, it just feels underdeveloped, too rooted in humdrum, hungover Sunday-morning reality to justify even this fleeting theatrical runout. 

90 Minutes opens in selected cinemas from Tuesday, ahead of its DVD release on April 1.