Wednesday, 17 July 2019

At play in the fields of the Lord: "Our Time"

Now this is some old-school counterprogramming: a film so far removed from a Disney x Beyoncé redo of The Lion King as to seem beamed in from another era, another universe entirely. Carlos Reygadas is the Mexican writer-director who emerged in that millennial moment when the movies were nudging (and, in certain cases, vigorously frotting) against the boundaries of accepted representation. In between a lot of what came to be defined as slow cinema, he gave us gerontophilic sex in 2002's Japón, unsimulated sex in 2005's Battle in Heaven, and rather joyless swinger sex in 2012's Post Tenebras Lux, an occasionally atmospheric yet often strained upper-case Art Movie in which Reygadas appeared to be working through some deeply personal hang-ups, possibly of most concern to him and his nearest and dearest. His latest film, arriving on UK screens after receiving an understandably mixed reception at last year's Venice festival, pushes further still in this direction. Our Time runs just shy of three hours, is discursive as all hell, and has at its centre a marriage between a couple of ranchers played by the director and his real-life wife Natalia López, tested when the latter takes up with an American ranchhand. You could, I'd venture, depart after the opening half-hour - mostly consisting of footage of the ranchers chasing their livestock, or bulls charging after the ranchers - and be confident about knowing the film's theme. Wild hearts run free. It's only natural.

To do so would be to miss plentiful evidence that Reygadas is a great landscape artist manqué. There are scenes in this director's earlier works that have lodged in the mind, not because of the words and actions of the characters within them - people being routinely the least interesting element in Reygadas movies, rarely more than crash-test dummies bussed in at the last minute to be stripped or otherwise humiliated - but because of the worlds they looked out onto: Japón's craggy hillsides, the flooded fields of Post Tenebras Lux. Reygadas has always done his best work as the sun is coming up or going down, when those worlds appear newly anointed or ominous; he sees the promise in our surrounds, and then the lurking existential terror. Our Time is, at root, a domestic drama - more Scenes from a Marriage - tempted outside to play under 2:35: 1 skies. As one of the lovers' texts has it, with regard to the pair's illicit couplings, "It's always more exciting outdoors", which we can see for ourselves - though those words start to ring somewhere between ironic and entirely hollow in the course of the long, generally lacklustre advert for polyamory that follows.

Much of Our Time's shortcomings as drama stem from Reygadas's self-appointed "uncompromising auteur" status. It would be possible to countenance a pithy two-hour account of consenting adults attempting to finesse and childproof the sharper points of a love triangle: Liv Ullmann achieved something in this vein with 2000's Faithless, though that was a project driven by the wracked, self-lacerating conscience of its screenwriter Ingmar Bergman, wisened enough to know that, however enthusiastically we might try, three into two doesn't easily go. Reygadas, by contrast, gives himself a lot of time and space to fill - too much, it transpires. In last year's The Wild Pear Tree, the Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan took three hours to knot together his signature landscapes with the internal growth of a brattish would-be author; the film had a credible sense of tangled life unfolding organically before us. There is so much of what Nicholas Parsons would deem deviation in Our Time - the highlights of a timpani concerto, shots taken from inside the bonnet of a moving car and on the wing of a landing plane, lessons in the finer points of ranch management - that it quickly starts to seem a ruse, an acknowledgement that what's going on at the heart of the picture really isn't all that major: a not untypically squalid breach of trust that gets shruggingly worked out over glasses of wine by characters who at all points in this affair present as far less passionate than the animals, even the trees around them.

As performers, Reygadas and López prove a modest step up from the lumpen non-professionals this director has typically stuck himself with, convinced he can fashion marble from clay: comparatively urbane bohemians, they at least appear comfortable before the camera, even when asked to lay bare souls and other body parts. Yet they never quite convince as anything more than thinly veiled sketches of whatever it is they themselves had to work through in their own relationship before the cameras started rolling (the "our" in the title appears especially significant), and so the movie only rarely appears like anything other than a thinly veiled excuse for this filmmaker to indulge his fantasies of watching and filming his other half getting off with another man. (I mean, fine, whatever works - but I've got ironing to be getting on with.) The most vivid moments in Our Time - the stuff you remember, even as you happily leave the rest to the director's personal spankbank - involve the film's younger players: the teens of the prologue, frolicking on a beach as signifiers of the innocent simplicity of youth, and the Reygadas-López children, cast as versions of themselves, whose sporadic, school-assignment narration of these events (a sort-of "Who My Parents Did On My Holidays") both lends the drama a semblance of shape while giving it the faint air of one of those Judd Apatow domestic comedies, removed of any identifiable traces of humour. In their place, an agonised narcissism, with which viewers will have to wrestle for three hours. When the wife first hooks up with her beardy, unprepossessing lover - the only scene outside some fairly lame last-reel chairthrowing where López doesn't appear impossibly wan - she does so gazing into the mirror. In its own way, it is as emblematic as all the business with bulls and horses that bookends the film - and it takes an awful long time to get from one example of animal behaviour to the next.

Our Time is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Across the universe: "Apollo 11"

In the fifty years since Man first set foot on the Moon, the movies have given us one very good and one near-definitive documentary on the achievement, namely Al Reinert's Oscar-nominated For All Mankind and David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon. The USP of Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 is to show us the nine-day Moon mission as live - instantly bridging the generation gap separating those who sat glued to the lunar landing as it unfolded on the night of July 16, 1969 and those of us born over subsequent decades, who've tended to experience galaxy-changing events via rolling-news coverage. The miracle is how much - how much detail, how much tension, how much wonder - Miller squeezes from what is essentially raw feed: footage beamed back from the cameras positioned around the rocket, the launchpad and Mission Control over those fateful days, which was then locked up in a NASA vault for the best part of half a century. We've all seen so much in recent years that has threatened to leave us numb, jaded; Apollo 11 is the first film of 2019 - the first film for a long time - to equip everyone who steps into the auditorium with a fresh pair of eyes.

Approaching these events from the purely technical, rational perspective of a TV news producer - no emotive voiceovers or framing devices, a soundtrack that favours echoey tech chatter and electrical fuzz over stirring orchestral score - and as something that happened (that is happening) liberates the images: though they flow sequentially, with clear cause and effect, we often have to puzzle out the precise import of what we're seeing, and thus the mission entire. Far from some tweedy museum piece, Apollo 11 instead becomes an act of discovery (or rediscovery) in homage to the events it describes. Miller is aware that, five decades on, we might look at these images a different way to those who saw them on the nights in question. Hard, now, to watch the launch - with its searing flares of light and heat, and one remarkable close-up (perhaps frame enlargement?) of the rocket's haphazardly riveted underbelly - without being reminded of the Challenger disaster thirty years later; the journey towards the Moon would recall Apollo 13 even before the onscreen appearance of Jim Lovell (the astronaut played by Tom Hanks in the Ron Howard movie) among the NASA wonks; while a slightly trippy descent brings to mind Gravity, and perhaps even 2001. The film allows us to spot the risks, but also - as that dusty grey-white orb gets ever closer, and a whole new frontier opens up - the very great and lasting rewards.

One shift in emphasis involves the key personnel. Messrs. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins occupied pride of place in the Reinert and Sington films, but the astronauts are limited to walk-on roles here, largely indistinguishable beneath their helmets and spacesuits. (We cannot tell whether, say, Armstrong was thinking of his late daughter, as last year's First Man rather fancifully supposed.) Instead, the focus is put back on the collaborative nature of the enterprise, Miller's editorial line insisting that this is what can be achieved when a nation puts its heads together, as opposed to locking antlers. Houston is evoked very nearly as vividly as the Moon: a vast support team of brillantined chaps touting sliderules and pocketguards, some puffing away on cigarettes, most of whom look as if they could be played by either Bill Pullman or Kevin Costner, each playing a part in ensuring Armstrong and cohorts enjoyed safe intergalactic passage. Time and again, the film amazes us with some display of precision, whether in Miller's approach - painstakingly matching comms feed to images, so the technicians can talk anew - or in the astronauts' own trajectory: witness the lunar module's descent onto the Moon - the most heartstopping setpiece of summer 2019, as it would have been in the summer of '69 - complete with rapidly descending onscreen fuel gauge and an alarm going off that we sense can't be positive. (Spoiler alert: the Eagle lands with sixteen seconds' worth of fuel remaining. Don't know about you, but that strikes me as a hell of a gamble to take while travelling this far at that velocity.) If you're suggestible enough to entertain the commonly held conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked, Apollo 11 will at the very least impress upon you the copper-bottomed thoroughness of the alleged fakers' con job.

The rest of us, looking back at Earth from the stars, will find ourselves pondering the question of where Man stands today, and one of the reasons the movie hits home so hard is that the answer is very likely: not all that much further on. Though there has been progress in the emerging nations - in India, especially, making good on its vast science and engineering potential - the best the West has recently proposed in the way of out-of-this-world activity is President Trump's so-called Space Force, less a coherent policy proposal than a ready-made pitch for some naff, sub-Glen Larson mid-Seventies network-TV dross, such that it was soon seized upon by The Office's Greg Daniels and Steve Carell as the basis for a spoof comedy. (As ever with Trump, the idea was all but forgotten about the moment the words escaped his lips.) Elsewhere, space programs have been defunded and dismantled, or passed into the grasping hands of entrepreneurs keen to profit from those who literally have money to burn. Miller can refute that idea of space as business-as-usual with most of these extraordinary images, but especially with one insert of the plaque the astronauts left behind on the Moon, bearing the legend "we came in peace for all mankind". If the use of past tense seems poignant, the documentary is fuelled - as Reinert's was - by those final three words: for all mankind, not just some. Apollo 11 returns us to a time of upward gazes and open minds, and to a universe without borders, which makes it something of a UFO at a moment when it feels as though everybody's retreated indoors to squabble on Twitter. Over the past few years, mankind has started to seem grounded if not mired, stuck on a planet with dwindling resources, making the best of a perilously bad hand. Apollo 11, 93 minutes that urgently insist we don't have to settle for this, reawakens the dreamer and the scientist within us, and allows the mind and spirit to soar.

Apollo 11 is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday, 15 July 2019

1,001 Films: "The Princess Bride" (1987)

Not so very long ago, in a time before Shrek but just after Spinal Tap, the grand viziers of La-la-land decreed their subjects should be gathered together to hear a fairytale, by one of its wittiest court jesters, about a beautiful princess, her love for a humble farmboy, and the mysterious masked man who comes to her rescue after she's married to a tyrannical king and carried away by mercenaries. There would be swordplay, and giants, and "kissing parts", and a happy ending, and everyone who heard it thought it the most wonderful story they'd ever been told; even better, in fact, than the one about the Goblin King, or the one about dark crystals, or the one that the troubadour from the neighbouring republic of Kajagoogoo had claimed was never-ending. And thus did enchantment set in, and all was well in the kingdom, at least for another 94 minutes.

William Goldman's novel The Princess Bride was already wise to the ways youngsters were having their attention snatched away from them: appropriately, the film's first shot is of a very 1980s computer baseball game. Yet the whole project would counter by coming up with renewed ways of winning that attention back, most notably by appearing at once a good deal smarter than the story being told. The great joy of Rob Reiner's film is that it's never smarmy; of course, it helps that the people doing the interrupting on screen are Peter Falk, pretty much ideal casting as the narrating grandfather, and a pre-Wonder Years Fred Savage, whose puppy-fat cheeks were just aching to be pulled. The trick is that it genuinely seems to believe in the romance, virtue and magic it annotates; it deconstructs to show just how central these elements are to the art and craft of truly satisfying storytelling, and denies us an easy outlet for our cynicism with every new cut to Savage's increasingly beguiled face. Billy Crystal's latex-coated cameo as Miracle Max looks less and less funny as the years go by, but Cary Elwes (as the farmboy) and Robin Wright (as the Princess) were never to top this; if you had any sense, you'd also take Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya over the Patinkin of Yentl, and his double-act with Andre the Giant is just about perfect.

The Princess Bride is available to stream on Netflix, and on DVD through Lionsgate.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

1,001 Films: "Housekeeping" (1987)

Adapted from a novel by Marilynne Robinson, Bill Forsyth's American studio debut Housekeeping is a lesson in how to do what would come to be known (rightly or wrongly) as a chick flick with intelligence and integrity. We're at the end of the 1950s, the decade of the teenager, but our young heroines - forthright, upfront Lucille (Andrea Burchill) and the mousier, awkward Ruthie (Sara Walker), who in the eyes of her sis spends "too much time looking out of windows" - find themselves being raised in the remote and deeply conservative community of Fingerbone, Idaho by an eccentric aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti). With her tacit approval of the girls' truancy, and a tendency to keep fish in her coat pockets, Sylvie is nobody in Fingerbone's idea of a responsible guardian - certainly not Lucille's - and her idiosyncratic, instinctive parenting techniques split the sisters, seemingly forever more. A film of a more mainstream sensibility - a Mermaids, say - would let Lahti off the leash, and illustrate Sylvie's dottiness via relentlessly upbeat, pop-scored montages, as all the women on screen settled down for true love with the right, patient man. Yet in the absence of those men - save an antagonistically prying sheriff - Forsyth holds tight focus on the girls, their shifting perceptions of the woman who came to replace a mother they never really knew, and of the sometimes despondent places they inhabit.

It's all narrated by Ruthie the elder, which might have been a detrimental instance of a film telling us rather than showing, were it not for Forsyth's love of (Robinson's?) language: witness the description of a train derailing "like a weasel sliding off a rock". In fact, the film wears its literary origins, its writerly smarts, with great pride: the central unit of individuals choosing (rather than being forced by blood ties) to stick together has something of later Paul Auster novels about it, or you could approach the movie as a female-centred equivalent to Stand by Me. (Both films make memorable use of train tracks.) This is a beat or two slower in pace than the Reiner movie, and Forsyth's wit isn't much called for in an essentially gentle matinee piece, but the storytelling remains quietly radical (events are directed towards "an end to housekeeping", which entails burning down the house), and Walker and Burchill (who all but disappeared after this) create a very credible sisterly relationship hinting at long-standing rivalries and resentments, as well as obvious love and support.

Housekeeping is available on dual format DVD/Blu-Ray through Powerhouse Films. 

Saturday, 13 July 2019

1,001 Films: "Broadcast News" (1987)

Was Broadcast News the last hurrah for truly grown-up, sophisticated movie comedy in Hollywood? One of the ten best American screenplays of the 1980s establishes a love triangle between a trio of misfits charged with bringing the news to us each night: brilliant but neurotic, pathologically unhappy producer Holly Hunter (terrific: operating at 200mph, and the closest the movies had had to a Hepburn for decades), and her two favourite reporters, slick but intellectually insecure William Hurt and funny but schlubby Albert Brooks. In 1987 - the year of Wall Street - it must have been radical to see high-flying professionals with real doubts, yuppies with humanity, passionate believers doing what they do for love, not money. Writer-director James L. Brooks gave us a rare, entirely unpredictable romance - every corner of this triangle has their attractions and flaws; even Hurt's significant other is characterised with some sympathy - eyefuls of the behind-the-scenes wrangling that goes into live news, and dialogue that probably should be quoted more than it is. 

Brilliantly, Hunter's personal decision is made for her by a colleague's professional lapse: underpinning Brooks's writing here is a genuine distaste for the way news was already being turned into an entertainment, a theme that was to sustain several seasons of The Daily Show going into the current century. After this, Brooks was to venture into movies only occasionally, with more failure (I'll Do Anything, Spanglish) than success (As Good As It Gets), becoming more significant as the producer who helped Matt Groening bring The Simpsons to the screen. Hurt and Hunter were bound for more dramatic material, and while Brooks, A. took up the torch for this particular type of comedy (in 1996's Mother and 2005's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World), as would others (Ron Howard with 1994's The Paper, Ron Underwood with the same year's Speechless), everybody was soon to find that the Farrellys, and less talented jackasses, had run off with their audience; only Aaron Sorkin would pick up the thread, and then on TV (The West Wing, Studio 60, The Newsroom).

Broadcast News is available on DVD through Fox.

Friday, 12 July 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 28-30, 2019:

1 (new) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12A) ***

2 (1) Toy Story 4 (U) ***
3 (2) Yesterday (12A) **
4 (new) Westlife - The Twenty Tour Live (12A)
5 (new) Midsommar (18)
6 (new) The Queen's Corgi (PG) **
7 (3Aladdin (PG)
8 (5) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
9 (new) Anna (15)
10 (7) Rocketman (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Don't Look Now

2. Apollo 11
3. Article 15
4. Mari
5. The Matrix [above]

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

1 (new) Captain Marvel (12) ***

2 (1) Fighting with My Family (12)
3 (4) Toy Story (U) *****
4 (3) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
5 (9) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
6 (5) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
7 (2) Cold Pursuit (15) **
8 (6) Toy Story 2 (U) *****
9 (8) Aquaman (12)
10 (13) Bohemian Rhapsody (15)


My top five: 
1. Ash is Purest White

2. Birds of Passage
3. The Hole in the Ground
4. The Kindergarten Teacher
5. Captain Marvel

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Lethal Weapon (Friday, ITV, 11.10pm)
2. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Sunday, ITV, 1.30pm)
3. McFarland, USA (Saturday, BBC2, 3.30pm)
4. Tomorrow Never Dies (Saturday, ITV, 9.50pm)
5. The Quiet Ones (Thursday, C4, 1am)

Succession: "Spider-Man: Far from Home"

Turns out they spun themselves a safety web. Marvel's fallback plan, after the supposedly ne plus ultra activity of Avengers: Endgame, is to set out the continuing adventures of Peter Parker, whose existence had been called into question by the events of Avengers: Infinity War before being reaffirmed by its follow-up. For franchise fans, then, here is a new hope. For the rest of us, Spider-Man: Far from Home might resemble standard corporate practice: the replacement of an ageing, infirm figurehead (in this case, Robert Downey Jr.'s fallen Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it launched in 2008) with a fresher face, and - here - a performer who's logged relatively few hours in latex going through the same superhero motions, and thus has no qualms about taking on the extra responsibility. After two self-consciously "dramatic" films wrapping up the Avengers arc, Far from Home is also clearly kickback, Marvel's European Vacation: shrugging off the passing of key Avengers via a highschooler's YouTube video - on reflection, all the reflection those developments truly merited - it pitches Parker (Tom Holland) and pals towards Venice, Prague, London and a bizarre idea of the Netherlands before finally returning him to swing unburdened by baggage through the streets of New York. Tony Stark died, it transpires, so that Peter Parker could live.

The fresh air and change of locations that follow ensure Far from Home is broadly likable, if ramshackle in places (evidently the result of many script drafts) and no more essential than anything that's come before it - it is, bottom line, just another film in a series. If it's an improvement on 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming, that's in part because it doesn't have to slog through an origin story we've already sat through twice since the turn of the millennium: it can drop us amid the action, then crack on with distracting us for two hours, before arriving at an idea that might just get us and the key creative personnel through another one yet. Returning director Jon Watts - fast-tracked into the Marvel millionaires club off the back of 2015's Cop Car - looks far more assured in his marshalling of that personnel: he's worked out what works in these movies, what might be usefully dwelt upon, and what can be dashed through. Holland is endearingly precise in those scenes that don't convert Parker into a computerised avatar, and there really is something heartening in Zendaya's reinvention of Mary Jane: not the apple-pie all-American sweetheart the character was conceived as during the LBJ administration, but a squinty, scowly 21st century beanpole some measure smarter and cooler than any of the boys around her. These kids are building a winning partnership - more winning, at least, than Stark's wooing of his own secretary, or the sketchy pairing of Stark's chauffeur Hap (Jon Favreau) with Parker's widowed Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), which at this precarious moment within the MCU seems more consolidation of power than sincere love match.

The latter subplot again flags up New Spider-Man's regrettable tendency towards thespwaste, following Homecoming's flat squandering of such talents as Donald Glover and Michael Keaton. In her four minutes of screen time, Tomei has only to present as a lovely snack for a hungry-looking Favreau (she could be replaced by almost anything on the catering table), and while the excellent Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys) ekes out a few nice moments from a secondary classmate role, Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove appear stranded as unlikely chaperones, comedians abandoned by a script full of lines that have the form of jokes, but not the content that might coax actual laughter. We're also noticeably closer to the movie centreground than the MCU has previously brought us (which presumably explains why the suits thought Far from Home a safe bet to get mourning or sceptical viewers back in the multiplex). The artful string theory and speculation of last December's placeholding Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has been abandoned for now; in its place, we're offered yet another teen coming-of-age picture, albeit one with the budget to go places, and one that has to stop occasionally for the crashes, bangs and general citysmashing that are an obligatory part of this universe. The consolation is that, wherever he finds himself within this world, Watts locates and hits most of his story beats, and thus the film hits its own target: it does the job the executives were expecting it to do, and you and I get the experience we were surely hoping for when we handed over our cash at the box office.

Far from Home even smuggles in one new-ish element, in that at least some of those crashes and bangs - those brought about by Mysterio (a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal, doing a thoroughly professional job of concealing an obvious twist) - are pure fakery, a screen set in place to conceal all manner of nefarious activity. (Nefarious corporate activity, furthermore: once again, Marvel draws a clear line between "good business" - as represented by the redeemed martyr Stark and his spider-suited young protege - and bad.) If the cash-rich escapism of Far from Home had anything remotely to do with the real world, we might read this as the MCU's comment on Trumpism: indeed, a closing-credit sequel set-up reveals the Daily Bugle has reinvented itself as an Info Wars-style online portal, with J. Jonah Jameson (a welcome return for J.K. Simmons) appointing himself as its blustering Alex Jones. Within the MCU, however, it returns us to something like the self-referentiality of 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, offering some acknowledgement of how flimsy all this make-believe really is. Far from Home is aptly fresh-faced in its admission that what we're watching is just a movie, no more, no less; it's an improvement on the wannabe gamechanger Endgame, which - with its turn-back-the-clock plotting - struck me as fundamentally dishonest. It would require a creative as singular as Taika Waititi to make that self-referentiality pop as it did in Ragnarok; Watts, still at the beginning of his career, isn't prepared to be too cheeky or self-critical just yet. And I left Far from Home with a concern that the Stark legacy is about to stick our sweet-kid hero with cumbersome gadgetry that will overwrite what made him unique in the first place. (Spidey's suit is already looking ominously ferric.) Still, I'd be happy enough if this second phase of Marvel contented to be no more than light entertainment like this - some of the best smoke and mirrors money can buy.

Spider-Man: Far from Home is now playing in cinemas nationwide.