Wednesday, 7 October 2015

At the LFF: "Grandma"

Phase One of the Lily Tomlin Renaissance came on TV - or whatever we're calling Netflix - with the sitcom Frankie and Grace. Grandma constitutes Phase Two: a big-screen vehicle constructed entirely around her presence as an incorrigibly salty oldtimer who gets to put the world to rights for an hour and twenty minutes before walking off into the sunset. (See also: Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, Bruce Dern in Nebraska, every Maggie Smith movie this century.) We join Tomlin's reclusive poet Elle Reid just as she's dumping her latest fling (Judy Greer); she doesn't have to wait long for company, however. Enter Sage (Julia Garner), Elle's granddaughter, who's shown up at her compound in the L.A. hills looking for somebody to accompany her to - and pay for - the abortion she's due to have later that day. Reluctantly, Elle agrees; she dusts off her long-time partner's mothballed Dodge, and away the pair go.

For most of their way across town, we're basically watching a misanthrope clearing some space for her fragile young charge to run into the endzone. Tomlin gets to harangue a coffee-shop owner (John Cho) for overcharging; to kick Sage's no-good babydaddy (Nat Wolff) squarely in the nuts; and to coax the girl's uptight businesswoman mother (Marcia Gay Harden) down off her treadmill-desk long enough to have a conversation that's long been overdue. You sense the film itself attempting to clear a path for further discussion of the A-word, a subject American movies have always slightly tensed up around, if not entirely recoiled from. The writer-director, the likable Paul Weitz, has clearly schooled himself in women's studies and bodies since his American Pie days (though you could argue even those films were markedly more progressive around the fairer sex than the majority of teen movies): Grandma duly namechecks Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir during one stop-off at a feminist bookstore, and generally strives to make abortion no more fearsome than the punchline to a funny story - a procedure that, like the humdrum tonsillectomy, has now been around long enough for us to make a joke out of it, should we so choose.

This is, however, as bold as Grandma gets. There was a time, around the consecutive release of 2002's About a Boy and 2004's In Good Company, when Weitz seemed the obvious inheritor of the "new Wilder" tag jettisoned by Cameron Crowe on his long-haul flight out to gagaland. (The latter's latest Aloha - with Emma Stone cast as an Asian-American - is now available exclusively on DVD.) Both men, I suspect, are too genial for that tag to really stick: their tendency is to give us the cookie, but not the arsenic, too busy joshing to much probe the darker side of their characters. (As a result, it wouldn't surprise me if, at some point over the coming months, Weitz were accused of coasting by on the coattails of the abortion conversation initiated by Gillian Robespierre in last year's far spikier indie Obvious Child.)

Still, Grandma has its moments: chiefly a terrific stretch involving Sam Elliott as Tomlin's ex-husband - hardly an overbearing patriarch, just a dude in cowboy boots tinkering with a small, battery-powered jeep. (We learn he's had eleven grandkids, all told; he has nothing to compensate for.) Here, at least, the ever-inclusive Weitz digs a little deeper into his material, extending the field of inquiry to explore how the ways women relate to and use their bodies affects not just themselves, and one another - but men, too; it also offers the sight of two cherishably lived-in performers putting down the corn for a second and properly chewing over what Elliott describes as "the old shit [that] bubbles up through the tar". A bonus for young multiplex audiences: the chance to learn some new insults. Upon hearing Elle berated as a "writer-in-residence", Sage shrugs "My friends just call each other bitch, ho and slut." It's an easy path to follow, but everyone's heading in more or less the right direction.

Grandma screens tomorrow at 2.15pm at the Odeon Leicester Square, then on Fri 9 at 6.30pm at the Cineworld Haymarket, and finally on Sat 10 at 1.30pm at the Ritzy. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

"Singh is Bliing" (Guardian 04/10/15)

Singh is Bliing *
Dir: Prabhudheva. With: Akshay Kumar, Amy Jackson, Kay Kay Menon, Lara Dutta. 140 mins. Cert: 12A

Bollywood can be a confusing place. All parties involved are insistent that Singh is Bliing [sic], a goofy comedy starring Akshay Kumar as a beturbanned toughnut named Singh, has nothing whatsoever to do with 2008’s Singh is Kinng, a goofy comedy that starred Akshay Kumar as a beturbanned toughnut named Singh. Yet the similarities of tone and title are such one wonders whether some behind-the-scenes legal finagling has obliged the new film’s creatives to adopt an alternative trajectory. There is, after all, a fair amount here with which you wouldn’t want to be associated: even by Kumar’s lowly standards, it’s pretty inane stuff.

Kumar gave a laudably serious, committed performance in August’s prominent flop Brothers, but his follow-up looks very much like a reversion to give-‘em-what-they-want type. Singh 2.0 – the raffish Raftaar – is a touch Sandlerish: an inveterate party boy, introduced flunking a zookeeper gig. Dispatched to Goa by despairing parents, he’ll eventually assume some responsibility as protector to Sara, daughter of a marked businessman; she’s played by the pouty, Isle of Man-born Amy Jackson, another of those English-speaking Bollywood performers who appear never to have spoken a sentence of English in their lives. (Her slo-mo emergence from the ocean in a Baywatch-red swimsuit suggests the producers had other reasons for casting her.)

Director Prabhudheva’s idea of comedy is broad and very much soundtrack-led. Limping gags are punched up with incessant use of the penny whistle; barely a scene passes without someone having a flowerpot or bottle smashed over their head, or – introducing a more exotic note – a coconut slammed into their unmentionables. Right from the title’s extra “i”, everyone’s overcompensating for a lack of substance and sense: I could understand the second-act inclusion of Sara’s quest to find her mother – it offers the illusion of sincerity – but the running non-joke about her sleepwalking translator is anyone’s guess, and stop-offs in a damp Romania scream either “tax incentive” or “directorial concussion”.

Everything gives the impression of having been thrown together on the spot: it’s amateur hour, stretched over three. This Singh, never more than a succession of bright headscarves, makes his predecessor in Kinng seem fully rounded; the action looks under-rehearsed; the songs, composed in a key of screeching pastiche, are dire. What’s most confounding isn’t, ultimately, the film’s status as sequel or standalone; it’s the relentless vapidity, which defies all known laws of physics. There it is on screens across the country, around the globe – so it must exist in some form – but there’s so little to it, and so much of that. It is, whatever its genesis, a big nothiing.

Singh is Bliing is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

At the LFF: "Lucifer"

The 59th London Film Festival opens this Wednesday night with the premiere of Sarah Gavron's Suffragette, and runs at venues across the capital until October 18th. Over the coming days and weeks, I'll be reviewing some of the highlights of this year's event, starting with:

Lucifer, from the Belgian writer-director Gust van den Berghe, is one of the few films playing in the first week of this year's London Film Festival to offer viewers an entirely new way of looking at the world. It's presented in what's trumpeted as Tondoscope, wherein the image is rendered as a circle in the centre of the screen: a form that historically correlates to religious portraiture, and which therefore proves an apt frame for what turns out to be a latter-day parable of sorts. Van den Berghe has freely adapted a 1654 tome authored by one Joost van den Vondel - something of a Milton spoiler - in which Lucifer descends to Earth; in this adventurous retelling, he lands in a Mexican shantytown.

It's a droll gag that this dark angel - represented on screen by the remarkable, elongated jawline of Gabino Rodriguez - comes to effect scarcely more mischief and chaos than the locals wreak upon one another. The male half of the married couple he installs himself with is pretending to be bedbound after falling off a donkey; once his better half is out for the day, he promptly rouses himself and calls his pal round to start gambling. Yet van den Berghe is ultimately more interested in what happens when this hotline to heaven just as suddenly disappears, leaving the community - and, in particular, a young woman named Maria (Norma Pablo), whom he seems to have impregnated - well and truly in the lurch.

The film is the third in a trilogy: I haven't seen the other two, but even so it's impossible to miss the considered, quietist aesthetic at work here, assiduously stripping back everything we think we might know about the depiction of faith on film in order to follow a set of non-professional performers winding their way through rocky, muddy locations that don't appear to have changed much since the 17th century. There's something of Pasolini's 1960s adaptations in the mix, certainly: it's there in the steady contemplation of lined, lived-in faces, and the unexpected eruptions of bawdy, street-level humour. Yet the perspective keeps shifting in ways that make Lucifer a far trickier proposition to read.

Every so often, van den Berghe will break the dinner-plate compositions to adopt a panoramic, God's-eye view in which we look down on not just a scene but the planet entire, warped into a single shot - a pleasing effect that gets trippy indeed whenever the director introduces smoke or mist into the frame. (And when at last that frame breaks into standard widescreen, then what? Is it a sign the creator is no longer watching?) You sense van den Berghe looking east for his other influences: to Bela Tarr and Sátántangó, with its community waiting for a shadowy figure who may have defaulted on his promises, and to Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev, evoked in the local priest's attempts to construct the tallest church in Christendom.

Such projects take time, of course, and for most of the film, those of us congregated in the cheap seats are left - like our on-screen analogues - waiting for God-only-knows. While you wouldn't want van den Berghe to succumb to the rigged narrative games of American filmed evangelism, you might want him to feel the flames of hellfire under his feet and move a little quicker, and at the last to provide rather more revelation than he eventually does. It's as though this director has been left to his own devices out in the middle of nowhere: at the end of this first encounter, you still can't tell whether he's a missionary or a madman.

That said, the cloak of purgatorial mystery and eccentricity wrapped tightly around the project, made visible in the two-thirds of the screen cast into darkness, is fairly compelling in itself, obliging us to wrestle with what it is we're being invited to iris in on - to walk around the celestial beam of light pooling at the centre of the screen and interrogate the film for its true spiritual meaning. For what it's worth, I believe van den Berghe is at least as sincere in the Christian worldview he's proposing as van den Vondel was back when he wrote the book, which explains the leftfield choice of delivery format. The screen becomes a wormhole, taking us back into the past while allowing this filmmaker to pull certain ideas, ideals and ethics forward into the 21st century. In its own eccentric way, Lucifer is as much as a small miracle as any other perfect circle.

Lucifer screens at the ICA this Wednesday at 6.15pm, and again on Sat 10 at 1pm at the BFI Southbank. 

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of September 25-27, 2015: 
1 (1) Everest (12A)
2 (2) Legend (18) ***
3 (3) Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (12A)
4 (new) Miss You Already (12A)
5 (5) Inside Out (U) ****
6 (new) Solace (15)
7 (4) The Visit (15) *
8 (7) Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back (U)
9 (re) Pixels (12A) **
10 (10) Bill (PG)


My top five:   
1. The Martian [above]
2. Mia Madre
3. Older Than Ireland
4. By Our Selves
5. Dressed as a Girl

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12) **
2 (2) Cinderella (U)
3 (new) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
4 (7) Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) *
5 (4) The Divergent Series: Insurgent (12)
6 (3The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12) ** 
7 (5) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
8 (6) Home (U) ** 
9 (10) Child 44 (15)
10 (re) Jupiter Ascending (12)

My top five:  
1. The New Girlfriend
2. The Treatment
3. The Tribe
4. Building Jerusalem
5. Tomorrowland: A World Beyond

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. School of Rock (Sunday, C4, 4.30pm)
2. Gunga Din (Saturday, BBC2, 6am)
3. Skeletons (Saturday, BBC2, 12.40am)
4. Dean Spanley (Saturday, BBC2, 7.55am)
5. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Saturday, BBC1, 11.55pm)

"Dressed As A Girl" (Guardian 02/10/15)

Dressed As A Girl ***

Dir: Colin Rothbart. Documentary with: Pia Arber, Scottee, Jonny Woo, Amber Waze. 94 mins. Cert: 18

Colin Rothbart’s dispatch from London’s flourishing drag community initially threatens to be all tits and teeth: a whirlwind tour of a scene that needs scant encouragement to pop on a frock and extensively self-document. Once the filmmaker returns to his subjects off-hours, however, he identifies as much subtle and cherishable variation as there is among birds of paradise. There’s Scottee, for whom drag is a confessional, often confrontational form of performance art; Amber (formerly Dean), whose transition – and subsequent reunion with her bluff Mancunian father – forms the most compelling throughline; Rothbart’s inclusive approach also finds room for the enigmatic Pia, a third-gender conspiracy theorist whose Facebook updates are, as you might imagine, something else entirely. The survey extends not far beyond a few Dalston sidestreets, but the footage Rothbart returns, lit up like a dancefloor and energised with Hi-NRG beats, is affectionate, insightful and often very funny. And you can bet any afterparty will be a blast.

Dressed as a Girl is now playing in selected cinemas. 

"The Death and Resurrection Show" (Guardian 02/10/15)

The Death and Resurrection Show ***

Dir: Shaun Pettigrew. Documentary with: Killing Joke, Jaz Coleman, Jimmy Page. 150 mins. No cert

At two-and-a-half hours, Shaun Pettigrew’s exhaustive account of Killing Joke’s four-decade career is really a fans-only job, although it gradually loosens the cloak of mystique drawn around this band’s shoulders. Possibly spooked by frontman Jaz Coleman’s thousand-yard stare, Pettigrew takes his subjects’ dabbling in the darker arts seriously indeed, devoting entire sidebars to runes and numerology. (Less serious: guest witness Peter Hook, who shrugs off such Kerrang!-friendly Satanism with the priceless “I’m from Salford. Why would the Devil scare me?”) Between wobbly VHS footage of continental music shows and spinning NME headlines, Pettigrew uncovers ample evidence of erratic personalities, yet he’s equally attuned to fluctuations in their scowling sound: the initial DIY flourishes, the artful lacquer of their mid-80s chartbusters, the harder edge regained once the spotlight moved elsewhere. Throughout, Coleman remains fascinatingly idiosyncratic, whether recording inside pyramids or going head-to-head with Paxman; given the Joke’s longevity, you have to concede that whoever he’s been worshipping, it’s worked.

The Death and Resurrection Show is now playing in selected cinemas. 

"Ghosthunters" (Guardian 02/10/15)

Ghosthunters **
Dir: Tobi Baumann. With: Milo Parker, Ange Engelke, Christian Tramitz, Karoline Herfurth. 99 mins. Cert: PG

That this cheap-und-cheerful, German-derived kids’ flick has been rescued from the vast EU fodder mountain is presumably down to the presence of Milo Parker, the expressive young lead of June’s Mr. Holmes – though he gets flimsier material here, playing a pre-teen helping a cynical paranormal investigator (Ange Engelke) to reverse a phantom cold snap. The sub-Casper runaround that ensues could only enthral impressionable seven-year-olds, although jellybean-verdant spook Hugo might pique the interest of Harold Ramis-savvy copyright lawyers, and lameness detectors will ping steadily throughout. “My iPod!,” yelps Parker, after Hugo has doused him in ectoplasm. “More like a slimepod, I’d say,” winks the ghost. At least it’s not in 3D.

Ghosthunters is now playing in cinemas nationwide.