Friday, 4 September 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of August 28-30, 2015: 
1 (new) Straight Outta Compton (15) ***
2 (2) Inside Out (U) ****
3 (new) Hitman: Agent 47 (15)
4 (4) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12A) **
5 (6) Pixels (12A) **
6 (5) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (12A)
7 (3) Sinister 2 (15) **
8 (1) Paper Towns (12A)
9 (10) Minions (U) 
10 (new) 45 Years (15) ****

My top five:   
1. Miss Julie
2. The Second Mother
3. 45 Years 
4. Bronson
5. Ricki and the Flash

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Cinderella (U)
2 (5) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12) ** 
3 (3) The Divergent Series: Insurgent (12)
4 (6) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
5 (2) American Sniper (15) ***
6 (4) Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) *
7 (10) The Theory of Everything (12) ***
8 (8) Child 44 (15)
9 (re) Taken 3 (15)
10 (7) The DUFF (12)

My top five:  
1. The Falling
2. Glassland
3. Good Kill
4. Maxine Peake as Hamlet
5. Rosewater

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Boyz N The Hood [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 11.10pm)
2. Notting Hill (Sunday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
3. Immortals (Saturday, C4, 10pm)
4. The Hurt Locker (Sunday, C4, 11.30pm)
5. 2 Fast 2 Furious (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)

"Ricki and the Flash" (Guardian 04/09/15)

Ricki and the Flash ***

Dir: Jonathan Demme. With: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield. 101 mins. Cert: 12A

Like those 80s nostalgia gigs, this is something of an old pro’s show: Jonathan Demme directing a lite-feminist Diablo Cody script about a gigging rocker (Meryl Streep) recalled to Squaresville, Indianapolis to console her soon-to-be-divorced daughter. The resultant pass-agg sniping suggests a sister-film to Demme’s barbed Rachel Getting Married, although Streep’s presence inevitably softens the edges: the ferociously dishevelled offspring (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s actual daughter) is soon made over, and the final act installs a jukebox of all-American hits where the plot should be. Everybody’s basically jamming before the hugging starts, but – thanks to smart timing, and the director’s gift for sprinkling spontaneity over even humdrum interactions – getting there is no chore, and some fun, in an AOR-ish way. Curious, though, to see seasoned rock chronicler Demme suddenly going misty-eyed over Journey, Rick Springfield and Wang Chung: has he reasoned that this – rather than his preferred Talking Heads and Robyn Hitchcock – is just what plays in the heartlands? 

Ricki and the Flash opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"The Transporter Refuelled" (Guardian 04/09/15)

The Transporter Refuelled **

Dir: Camille Delamarre. With: Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright. 96 mins. Cert: 15

With Jason Statham having paid all dues, unrepentant wheeler-dealer Luc Besson here reboots his handy chauffeur franchise with a catalogue-model lead (Ed Skrein) and so much drooling placement for one German car manufacturer you wonder why they didn’t sell adspace in the title. Brick Mansions’ Camille Delamarre shapes the odd glibly efficient chase sequence, but these are small bursts of acceleration amid disastrous, handbrake-on plotting that tangles Skrein with a gang of bum-wiggling sex workers. Only the ultra-impressionable will be thrilled: not a single blow in its posy, prop-dependent fight scenes looks as though it connected, let alone hurt. The Stath wouldn’t stand for such nonsense. 

The Transporter Refuelled opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" (Guardian 04/09/15)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl **

Dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. With: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Connie Britton. 105 mins. Cert: 12A

The title serves as fair notice: here’s another Sundance-approved pseudo-indie reconstituted from equal parts quirk and fluff. Whatever insight resided in Jesse Andrews’ YA novel – about an affectless teen film buff (Thomas Mann) renewed via encounters with his leukaemia-stricken neighbour (Olivia Cooke) – director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon doodles over with nerdy movie mock-ups, sensitive Eno soundscapes, and talking Hugh Jackman posters tacked to wallpaper intended, at the last, to signify personal growth. The promising Cooke has moments that almost pierce this artful carapace with something like truth, but it remains a thoroughly cellophaned package, no more affecting – or lasting – than a vaguely colourful baguette from an upmarket sandwich chain. 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Holiday from hell: "No Escape"

Consider it First World Problems: The Action Movie. No Escape finds the Dowdle brothers taking a step up - in scale, at least - after 2010's Devil (who's the killer in the lift?) and last year's As Above So Below (idiot kids get lost in Parisian catacombs) by relocating a family of nice, white Westerners (Owen Wilson, Lake Bell and their two adorable little cherubs) to an unidentified Asian nation (it's Thailand, stripped of all signifers) just as an especially bloody coup is going down. No-one's expecting Costa-Gavras from their multiplex filler at this moment in time, but even a smidgen of sincere political engagement would have been nice: as it is, we get a half-hour of sightseeing followed by an hour of dissident-dodging, before an unlikely deus ex machina materialises in the form of Pierce Brosnan's jovial Cockney sex tourist. The set-pieces are functional, if overly reliant on ominous slo-mo, but the insularity involved - insisting that all Asian uprisings look the same, while turning legitimately restless natives into strategy-bereft rapists and sociopaths - falls somewhere between resistible and outright objectionable. The moral of the story is clear: keep your passport and your dollars in your back pocket, and holiday in Disneyland again next year.

No Escape opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

Monday, 31 August 2015

From the archive: "Bronson"

A biopic of Britain's most notorious prisoner (Charles Bronson, born Michael Peterson in 1952) from Vertigo Films, purveyors of lads-mag endorsed odes to rucking? My expectations going into Bronson weren't entirely high. Thankfully, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn is too smart a filmmaker to fall into the obvious traps. By all accounts, he hadn't heard of Bronson before reading Brock Norman Brock's script, which gives him some critical distance from his subject; and this director's Pusher trilogy, set in the Copenhagen underworld, formed anything but a straightforward glorification of criminal misdeeds. What we're provided with here is a fever dream-cum-freakshow sparked by the confessions of this most dangerous mind - less straight-up hagiography, in fact, than mildly unhinged wack job. Form and subject come to coincide.

On what looks like a music hall stage - elements of The King of Comedy here, right from the off - Tom Hardy's Bronson, unreliable narrator and circus strongman lookalike, recounts his life story to a variously stirred and unmoved audience, changing costume and adorning himself with make-up as Refn sees fit. 34 out of Bronson's 57 years have been spent behind bars, thirty of those in solitary confinement, which may explain the wild, imaginative flourishes we bear witness to: an asylum disco where doped-up inmates frug narcotically to "It's a Sin"; a polysexual council-flat brothel operated by Bronson's Uncle Jack; the marvellous Matt King (Peep Show's Super Hans) as the flamboyant bare-knuckle boxing promoter who gave Peterson his cinematic stage name, and who himself appears to be called Paul Daniels. (Now that's magic.)

How much of this is true of course remains open to question, and I'm not entirely sure whether making Bronson a comic figure, a bit of a card, is any more palatable than couching him in strictly heroic terms. (The final frames do look like a plea for his release, on the grounds that he's never killed anyone.) Winding Refn marshals all the filmmaking effects available to him - like Lynch, he's good on rooms that seem ever so slightly off, as though somebody's died (or is about to die) in them - and he coaxes an utterly committed performance from the perpetually coiled Hardy, though you may have cause to ponder just what the actor's committing to, and whether or not he should be committed himself for so doing. In the end - like the Australian film Chopper, which it often recalls - Bronson left me uneasy, and that may be a more worthwhile response to Peterson's life story than simply frothing at the mouth.

(March 2009)

Bronson is re-released in selected cinemas from Friday. 

"Phantom" (Guardian 30/08/15)

Phantom ***

Dir: Kabir Khan. With: Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kaif, Rajesh Tailang, Denzil Smith. 136 mins. Cert: 15

Just as 9/11 gave rise, after an appropriate mourning period, to a decade of soul- and cave-searching in American cinema, so the spectre of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai in 2008 seems likely to hover over Indian cinema for the foreseeable future. Already we’ve had 2013’s Greengrassy docudrama The Attacks of 26/11, the veteran Ram Gopal Varma’s sober recounting of these events from the perspective of Rakesh Maria, the Mumbai chief of police. There now arrives Phantom, Kabir Khan’s adaptation of Hussain Zaidi’s speculative fiction Mumbai Avengers, which owes more to the 24/Homeland school of counterterrorism, vacillating as it does between pulpy pertinence and arrant wish-fulfilment.

Objections have already been lodged by both Médecins Sans Frontières and the suspected Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed, suggesting action specialist Khan is operating on a broad spectrum of offence. Yet this pacy film propels us through its problematic patches, and also proves unexpectedly telling as to how insecure India feels over the fact the attack’s masterminds remain at large, from the moment a policy wonk decries the lack of an official response: “All we do is stop playing cricket”. Enter the Jack Bauer-like Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan), a disgraced army officer sent on a hushed-up mission to flush the killers out, deploying methods that really aren’t cricket.

As Daniyal barrels around – from the Oval via the Middle East to a final date with destiny in Pakistani waters – he gathers an aid worker sidekick (Katrina Kaif), and the tension that exists between these two represents a split that surely exists within Indian intelligence ranks: she urging caution, data-collection and the need to play the long game, he dashing around terminating, wherever possible, with extreme prejudice. You’ll just have to overlook the fact that as shadow operatives go, the well-groomed Saif and the ever-lipglossed Kaif form a couple broadly as inconspicuous as the Kardashian Wests; their movements don’t demand surveillance so much as a Vanity Fair spread.

Jolting dashes of realpolitik continue to permeate the action: the heads of a Pakistan-based terror organisation opt to meet Daniyal in Syria, reasoning that nobody will notice another dead body there. Yet the director is far more adept at constructing taut assassination set-pieces than he is at diplomacy: the incendiary editorial on Pakistan is handled with rather less than due diligence. The film does something very dubious with Kaif’s character, introduced flashing her “Medicine International” credentials as a voice of reason: after key scenes go missing around the intermission, she’s suddenly – like so many characters in 24 – transformed into a moist-eyed apologist for the hero’s bloodier responses. You can see why MSF would be irked.

They won’t be the only ones, for Phantom displays that unique pulp mix of motion and emotion that is compelling and revealing, but also deeply discomfiting to encounter. This relentless, reckless, wounded-bull-in-a-china-shop production is fuelled by a violence you can see in the leading man’s eyes and feel in its whiplash crosscuts, all of it directed towards getting hold of the attackers, and not necessarily bringing them to justice. (With lyrics like “I couldn’t handle this atrocity of love”, even the songs sound like calls to arms.) That violence gives Khan’s film its undeniable grip and punch – but we might pause to consider whether this region hasn’t seen and heard enough of it already.

Phantom is now showing in cinemas nationwide.