Thursday, 18 October 2018

The high Low Country: "Gangsta"

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah - who bill themselves, with typical informality, as simply Adil and Bilall - are the young Flemish writer-directors who made an impression across Europe with their 2015 thriller Black. Their follow-up Gangsta returns us to the same inner-city milieu, though it's very much a film of two halves: the freshness and cheek its makers display early on wears off with a dismaying rapidity. Its boldest move, as contemporary crime drama, is to throw back not to Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, but to those religiose gangster movies of the 1930s, describing the haphazard swathe one credulous slacker cuts through the Antwerp drug trade with structuring help from the seven deadly sins. Sloth is the life our boy leads before his life of crime (bunking off, gaming, masturbation); envy enters the picture after a sharpsuited Dutch kingpin speeds into town to offload several kilos of cocaine and makes off with our boy's dreamgirl. Gluttony is what he spends his ill-gotten gains on; wrath is left until late on.

It's a nifty way of reshuffling and reordering some very familiar ingredients (corrupt cops, montages of coke consumption apparently cut by someone who's taken a very big snort, a Taxi Driver homage here, a Fast & Furious-style drag race there), and these are cut with newer elements that keep the pulse rate and interest levels high for a while. Chief among these: a matter-of-fact multiculturalism, approached here head-on, from the inside out, which generates grace notes regarding the ways race and skin colour affects characters already subsisting on the margins, and the cops on their tail. Considerable superficial pleasure can be drawn from the directors' decision to shoot Antwerp, of all places, as though it were the sun-bright Florida of a Grand Theft Auto sequel, and not just a few miles down the track from where the Dardenne brothers have traditionally operated. (Reports linking this pair with the long-gestating Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop sequels make more sense once you've seen the film.)

Everyone's heading for a pretty precipitous fall, however. This is the kind of post-Refn cinéma du look that owes it to itself (and to its audience) to get in, get the job done, and get out without undue fuss or labour; instead, Gangsta ploughs on for a full two hours, allowing ample time for its irreverent highs to wear off, and for what at first seems like youthful cheek to stray into outright waywardness. You can feel these directors egging one another on, resulting in frequent missteps: a POV shot from between anonymous breasts off which coke is being snorted, a fake-out ending that offers only false hope, nasty, leering dollops of violence. Possibly the idea was to shock us - as our hero is shocked to realise the game he's playing has very real consequences - but the tactics the filmmakers deploy start to seem like ugly cliches rather than directorial playthings. Gangsta remains notably more cosmopolitan than Nick Love's The Business, its closest UK equivalent, but it's disappointing that what initially presents as exuberant should descend into the tiresomely posy and juvenile. 21st century Hollywood may be the best place for this pair. But heaven help the rest of us.

Gangsta opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

From the archive: "Eden"

As was noted circa 2011’s Goodbye, First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s off-screen affiliation with Olivier Assayas has only strengthened the profound yet delicately worn humanism the writer-director demonstrated in 2009’s outstanding Father of My Children: she’s found not just a mentor but a mirror, and a stirring model for her own endeavours. In Eden, Hansen-Løve mounts the kind of intimate social history Assayas has mastered: it views the 1990s Parisian house scene as every bit as much a protective bubble for the young and artistically minded as Assayas did the student communes in 2012’s Something in the Air.

On one level, Eden functions as an overview broadly comparable to our own 24 Hour Party People – the French picked up EDM (electronic dance music) later, and ran with it further come the new millennium – yet it’s sustained by Hansen-Løve’s ability to hone in on the beats by which her lightly fictionalised characters progress from innocence to experience. It shows us the dancefloor pulsing with loved-up revellers, but it also spies the one heartbroken girl pushing through the throng with her mascara streaming. Everyone has their reasons, and their rhythms.

Its centre is Paul (Félix de Givry), a would-be superstar DJ whose insatiable love of all things American manifests itself in both the name he attaches to his first club night (Cheers) and his fling with a visiting new-yorkaise (Greta Gerwig, remixing Frances Ha); he remains blind, for the best part of his twenties, to the affection retained for him closer to home by best friend Louise (Pauline Etienne).

Yet the camera – and the narrative – keeps drifting off in pursuit of alternative perspectives. Hansen-Løve senses the frustration of a scene elder (talismanic roue Vincent Macaigne) who’s shown his chums Showgirls three times without, in his eyes, anyone appreciating its vision of American vulgarity; a similar emotion is noted on the face of a bit-part waiter when these party kids enter his bar after hours to bombard him with orders.

Much of Eden is, in this way, buoyantly upbeat, even comic: on the fringes of this scene, we keep running into two sheepish types named Thomas and Guy-Manu, who only seem confident when dropping their latest tune – you’ll know them as Daft Punk, and Eden is the film that, in its roundabout way, explains both why the pair took to wearing helmets in public, and how a tune as revivifying as “Get Lucky” gestated. (Macaigne’s character is sent to interview Nile Rodgers at one point, which is a clue.)

Yet Hansen-Løve never backs away from playing the trickier, more affecting notes. Even when the film relocates to Chicago – so Paul can court producers into handing over fresh tracks – we’re aware this leaves one of the protagonist’s pals back home, fighting a losing battle with depression. Escapist nocturnal highs only last so long; reality – sometimes harsh, often banal, once or twice tragic – always returns to seize the day.

As its A-side/B-side intertitles (“Paradise Garage”/”Lost in Music”) hint, this is to some degree a familiar story, one in which youthful passion and idealism come to be compromised by business pressures, hangers-on and other exigencies of the adult world. Yet Hansen-Løve never stresses this overriding structure, instead riding the waves of mood.

In an interview, Paul describes his favourite music as existing “somewhere between euphoria and melancholia”, and much of Eden is suspended between these two poles: on one side, the heightened BPM of the soundtrack, a lovingly curated mix CD; on the other, the more ruminative time scheme of Paul’s early adult life. Hansen-Løve moves us in both senses of the word: she’s like a DJ spinning Ten City’s “That’s the Way Love Is”, and trying to pinpoint the sweet spots in that bittersweet house classic where chorus meets comedown.

In Eden’s opening scene, the teenage Paul breaks away from the crowd returning from a rural all-nighter to sit alone in reflection under a tree in an atmospherically foggy field. There is, indeed, something in the air here: at dawn, he vows out loud to record everything he’s seen and heard over the course of this formative evening. Few recent films have so generously and magnificently depicted the ways in which we come to fill the silence.

(MovieMail, July 2015)

Eden screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.15am.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

From the archive: "Goosebumps"

R.L. Stine's horror-themed children's books have been such bestsellers these past decades that a movie version was perhaps inevitable; the problem, one assumes, would have been deciding which of these standalone texts to adapt. Sony's new Goosebumps plumps for the postmodern route, mashing up a dozen or so of the books' monsters, but making Stine himself - rather than spooks, zombies or haunted houses - its organising principle: a not uninspired idea, given a broadly functional treatment by director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) and his small committee of screenwriters. So it is we find hunky teen hero Zack (Dylan Minnette, destined to play the young Captain America at some point) moving to Everytown, USA with his single mom (Amy Ryan, forever underused) and, in his pursuit of the girl next door, coming into near-immediate conflict with her father, a Mephistophelian-looking, black-clad recluse going under the name of Mr. Shivers, and incarnated by Jack Black. The two will have to work together, however, after a series of unfortunate events unleash physical representations of the monsters Shivers - by which the film means Stine - has previously contained within his bestselling fictions, starting with the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, and working through to the Werewolf of Fever Swamp. At which point Letterman hands the job of direction over to his effects team - for however physical these manifestations are meant to be, onscreen they are, almost without exception, virtual phenomena - and hopes that his audience won't be so old as to remember 1995's Jumanji, or the episode of The Simpsons that referenced Jumanji

Anybody who has will recognise not just the set-up (small town falls under threat from the kind of pixellated menagerie only possible in the digital era) but the character arcs (antagonism shading to grudging respect as the town is saved from danger), the jovial, insistently PG tone, even some of the jollifying music cues. Not that Goosebumps isn't fun. Black - as School of Rock proved - is always good value when arching an eyebrow and either smartmouthing or putting the wind up kids; when the runaround pauses, the camera will often alight on other funny faces, seizing a moment. Jillian Bell raises regular chuckles as Ryan's sister, while Veep's Timothy Simons livens up a throwaway part as the local lawman. There's a certain enjoyment to be derived from the sheer variety of ghouls plaguing this particular Main Street, too: at an early script meeting, it was clearly decided to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, and then to install an army of malevolent garden gnomes in that. It is, though, really no more than a predictable, carefully managed sort of fun, devoid of the true mischief a Sam Raimi or Joe Dante (whose fondly remembered TV series Eerie, Indiana would be another precursor) might have lent the project; you suspect those directors would have put a swift red pen through the entirely pat development that sees Stine literally having to confront his demons to move on. In the end, this Goosebumps emerges as the kind of bland corporate entertainment that typifies an age where cinemas are required to keep their lights on during the main feature for safety reasons. Nobody's going to be asking for their money back, but equally, you'll know what you're getting from the get-go; it'll do as a middling matinee, but at every stage of its conception and execution, it's been fine-tuned not to keep anybody awake at night, to haunt no dreams at all.

(MovieMail, February 2016)

Goosebumps is available on DVD through Sony; a sequel, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, opens this Friday.

"They Shall Not Grow Old" (IndieWire 16/10/18)

They Shall Not Grow Old arrives as clinching proof of just how far Sir Peter Robert Jackson has travelled in three decades. Few would have predicted that the beardy yahoo mixing oatmeal and yoghurt to make alien vomit for 1987’s Bad Taste would wind up collaborating with London’s hallowed Imperial War Museum on a project to mark the centenary of World War One, but then history has a way of surprising us all. Now an Academy Award-bearing elder statesman, Jackson has been entrusted with the keys to the archive containing some of the so-called Great War’s most delicate and indelible images. Wearing its sincerity like an Armistice Day poppy, the resulting montage-film – premiering at the London Film Festival tonight ahead of future TV transmissions – does its utmost to honor the conflict’s fallen.

Jackson’s boldest choice has been to colorize some footage, and – for theatrical screenings – retrofit it with the 3D of his Hobbit sagas. Instantly, They Shall Not Grow Old risks reopening and expanding the ferocious debate that broke out around Ted Turner’s late-Eighties decision to colorize classic films, much as Marina Amaral’s colorized photos of WW2 concentration camps have recently sparked heated artworld discussions on morality and Photoshop. Jackson’s reasoning is that black-and-white was not how his subjects experienced life during wartime, and it’s true that his carefully chosen hues unlock a certain immediacy secreted in these images. Here lies a generation in the first flushes of ruddy-cheeked youth, which makes any eventual sacrifices at Passchendaele and Ypres more palpably tragic.

We are, however, eased in gently. The film opens in a newsreel ratio, with familiar images of marching Tommies accompanied by the reassuring whirr of a manually loaded projector. Recruitment posters (such as the iconic “Daddy, What Did You Do in The Great War?”) are the first artefacts that pop out at us in colour, a choice that feels far less contentious than working over dead men’s faces. And if rummaging in the archive has presented Jackson’s researchers with hours of usable footage, this has been assembled with a discipline those well-regimented Tommies would have recognised. We pass, as these men passed, through medicals and basic training, before shipping out to Europe; only around the halfway mark does Jackson make the decisive shift to full colorization.

Until then, the soundtrack does much of the heavy lifting. What Jackson gravitates towards in the survivors’ oral histories is any trace of irreverence: there’s much good-natured yet revealing griping about rations, uniform (“In the Army, it isn’t that your boots don’t fit your feet; they say your feet don’t fit the boots”) and billeting. (One visual surprise here: the sheer number of photos the Museum has accumulated of troops squatting bare-assed and perilous over makeshift latrines. There may be an official Keeper of the Grubby Butt Pics.) The testimony, at least, is cleaner than you’d expect from those obliged to kill for King and country, but it’s the language that most connects these images to 1918, dotted with phenomena (“plum duff”, “hookworm”) we’ve since evolved beyond.

While some recall their service with boyish pep, inevitably the shadow of death comes to loom large. It’s crucial that the transition to full color only comes once we’re at the front, with green and pleasant England behind us, and that those colors should be so mournfully muted: the soldiers’ khaki, the indistinct browns of much-trodden ground, the sickly sepia-yellow of mustard gas. We’re not spared the sight of life-drained bodies lying at agonised angles over barbed wire, though Jackson the sometime gorehound is also aware of the shocking notes human crimson can add to an image palette. (There’s even something a touch William Castle-like about one insert showing the Technicolor rot of a gangrenous foot: instructional, yes, but not what you’d want looming out at you in 3D.)

If the project supports any specific colorization argument, it’s that the process may be better off detailing the lifeless than it is the living. Whenever the image lingers on the latter, faces start to appear oddly zombie-like (made-up?), caught between no-man’s-land and the uncanny valleys of Jackson’s dubiously digitised Tintin adaptation, neither as dead as we know them to be, nor quite as alive as the filmmaker wants them. (The consolation of black-and-white imagery: it states, definitively, that this is a thing of the past.) Certain piquant effects would presumably be as evident in monochrome as they are in Jacksoncolor. Soldiers are seen playing to camera, testing their visibility and this new technology; their hard-won, uncertain smiles reveal British dentistry, ever-embattled, to have incurred several further hits.

Some may also cavil at the presumptions that mark They Shall Not Grow Old as the work of a born fabulist rather than a historian or journalist. Trench scenes have been remixed to lend them an atmosphere – a life – absent from more conventionally framed documentary, playing out to a Dolbyfied rumble of shells, while its previously silent subjects are given rhubarbing voice. A sequence of cuts between troop close-ups and bodies on the ground generates a powerful emotional effect, but also implies causal links – that this man died like this – which cannot be verified. What the man who filmed Helm’s Deep is ultimately compelled by is this conflict’s unprecedented, oft-horrific spectacle, hoping that humanity never again becomes so entrenched in its thinking and movements.

Perhaps that makes this conflict more vivid, rather than deepening our understanding: there’s scant socio-political context, little sense of why these men were fighting. Yet They Shall Not Grow Old succeeds in prising open a closed-off historical moment, carrying its traces beyond war buffs towards youngsters who might only know Franz Ferdinand as an art-rock band, and who might believe grainy monochrome images taken on a distant shore several lifetimes ago bear no meaning to their lives. At the very least, Jackson will have smuggled what were previously museum pieces onto screens across the world at a time when that world might learn something from them. By liberating this footage, and holding it up to 21st century light, his project renders all that was old joltingly, often powerfully new again.

Rating: B

They Shall Not Grow Old will screen in selected cinemas tomorrow and Sunday, and on the BBC next month.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 5-7, 2018:

 (new) Venom (15) [above]
2 (new) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
3 (new) A Star is Born (15) ***
4 (2) The House with the Clock in its Walls (12A)
5 (1) Night School (12A)
6 (3) A Simple Favour (15)
7 (new) Aida - Met Opera (n/c)
8 (4) Crazy Rich Asians (12A) **
9 (5) The Nun (15)
10 (7) The Wife (15) ****


My top five: 
1. Bad Times at the El Royale

2. Blindspotting
3. The Wife
4. Kler/Clergy
5. A Star is Born

Top Ten DVD sales: 

(1) Solo: A Star Wars Story (12) ***
2 (2) Deadpool 2 (15) **
3 (4) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (3) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
5 (6) Coco (PG) ***
6 (new) Show Dogs (PG) *
7 (new) Bodyguard (15)
8 (8) Moana (PG) ****
9 (9) Peter Rabbit (PG)
10 (21) Hocus Pocus (PG)


My top five: 
1. Summer 1993

2. Custody
3. The Happy Prince
4. Solo: a Star Wars Story
5. Apostasy

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Die Hard (Saturday, C4, 11.45pm)
2. Eden (Friday, C4, 12.15am)
3. Selma (Sunday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. Antz (Sunday, C4, 1.30pm)
5. The Guard (Tuesday, C4, 1.20am)

"Kler/Clergy" (Guardian 12/10/18)

Kler/Clergy ***
Dir: Wojciech Smarzowski. With: Arkadiusz Jakubik, Robert Wieckiewicz, Jacek Braciak, Joanna Kulig. 133 mins. Cert: 18

Source of understandable huffing among Polish conservatives, this stark and steely-eyed drama sets out its anti-clerical stall when three Catholic priests’ marathon drinking session is interrupted by news one of their parishioners requires the last rites, duly slurred through. A few degrees lighter – visually, tonally – and it might have reached us under the title Bad Padres. The multitude of sins writer-director Wojciech Smarzowski enumerates spans confession-box dozing, illegal surveillance, and liberal borrowing from the collection plate – and that’s before he perhaps inevitably broaches some ambiguous business with altar boys in the sacristy. Suffice to say, Smarzowski isn’t exactly preaching to the converted, rather mobilising that audience who suspect organised religion may be as organised crime, a Cosa Nostra in cassocks.

Presumably one reason for the hubbub back home is that this line of attack is being pushed not in some scrappy indie, but a handsome, multiplex-bound production boasting local all-stars: the most hireable priest – chief weakness: booze – is embodied by the excellent Robert Wieckiewicz, who played national hero Lech Walesa in Andrzej Wajda’s 2013 biopic. (His pregnant wife is played by Joanna Kulig, removed of her Cold War glamour.) After that riproaring opening, Smarzowski begins to chart the priests’ daily transgressions with a seriousness that subtly, skilfully shifts our perceptions of his apparently damnable protagonists. After half an hour, they start to look less like blundering caricatures than individuals at the mercy of a system keener to cover up than prevent abuses that are in many ways cyclical.

At times, it can feel as if the writer-director has taken on more than one film can satisfactorily chew. The deviation and interweaving of the three priestly strands proves quietly inspired – the network of corruption sustaining 1997’s L.A. Confidential may have been an unlikely but valuable influence – but the film still clocks in at an ungainly two-plus hours, despite a ruthless editing strategy that pares scenes to the bone. Yet if Smarzowski can’t quite achieve the straightahead rhetorical force of Pablo Larrain’s The Club, he gets close – particularly in the closing stretch – while the haunting central performances provide their own, altogether grim survey of the Polish church: here are sad, lonely, damaged men, clinging to their dog collars even as circumstances transform them into vices around their necks. Say a prayer for the Vatican PRs having to spin this one. 

Kler/Clergy is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"MFKZ" (Guardian 12/10/18)

Dirs: Shojiro Nishimi, Guillaume Renard. Animation with the voices of: Kenn Michael, Michael Chiklis, Dascha Polanco, Giancarlo Esposito. 94 mins. Cert: 15

The title of this exhaustingly grimy and chaotic collaboration between French and Japanese animators is both a blunt contraction of the Oedipal expletive and a statement of attitudinal intent. No time for anything so wussy as vowels: writer/co-director Guillaume “Run” Renard instead whips his own graphic novel’s highlights into a frenetic postmodern melange that sends pizza delivery boy Angelino (voiced, in this English redub, by Kenn Michael) scooting through diversely appropriated cultures. Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top-secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding “What the F*** is Going On?” in a midfilm graphic; enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.

By far the most impressive aspect is its density of vision: every corner of every frame has been worked over in some way. Renard’s Dark Meat City – a teeming reimagining of latter-day L.A., spawned of many hours sat before ‘hood movies, Grand Theft Auto and harder-core rap promos – is a mesh of interconnecting urban legends, overlaid with armies of human and insectoid cockroaches, then topped with ziggurats of trash and advertising space. If you’re looking for world building, you’re come to the right place. Yet its principal architects prove keener to flytip this secondhand imagery than they are to sort through it. There’s so much of everything – including a last-reel nuclear strike, intended to level matters up – that MFKZ threatens to mean nothing very much.

Pause to analyse the overload of visual information for even a moment, however, and some of what’s being dumped before us starts to look suspect indeed. At least one eyebrow might be raised at Renard’s effusively enthusiastic portrayal of a violent crime-ridden ghetto populated by gun-toting hulks and pneumatic babes; even Angelino’s bulbous, berry-round head appears dangerously close to the kind of racist caricature stamped on the front of 1930s boot blacks. (In this context, the city’s name sounds doubly icky.) It’s hitting cinemas for one night only, which may be all a splurge like this deserves – but don’t discount it from becoming a repository of retina-grabbing background visuals for questionably vogueish club nights.

MFKZ played in selected cinemas on Thursday night.