Sunday, 20 August 2017

1,001 Films: "Loulou" (1980)

After one argument too many, middle-class Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) splits with her jazz musician husband André (Guy Marchand) to take up with farmers' boy, common thief and general lad-about-town Loulou (Gérard Depardieu). Maurice Pialat's 1980 drama Loulou might initially seem the stuff of simplicity - a study in social movement, presented as a series of bust-ups and bunk-ups - but it displays a real feel for cafe and street life, and the eruptions of passion it captures are astonishingly vivid. If its interests are physical rather than intellectual, it's because Pialat evidently takes the side of Loulou's honest brute force over André's passive-aggression. As such, the film turns out to be a genuine rarity: the work of a smart director making a sincere attempt, through Depardieu's oafishly lovable moptop, to understand rather than be snide about the type of non-smart guy some girls want to spend their evenings with.

To some extent, it's Huppert's film: her Nelly is the film's emotional fulcrum, and given the gleaming, Garbo-like iceberg the actress has become these past two decades, it's a nostalgic pleasure to see her back in the days when she was still allowed to smile, laugh and have non-masochistic sex on screen. Yet there's a reason the title isn't Nelly (or Whoa, Nelly!): Depardieu clubs every scene he's in over the head and carries it off over his shoulder, a force of nature apparently acting less than being. Given his physicality, the fit he makes with Pialat's cinema comes as no surprise, but for those of us raised on the jovial gastronome Depardieu - Hollywood's idea of Frenchness - it's still a shock to witness the actor as unvarnished youth. Completing a trio of excellent lead performances, Marchand is wonderfully wormy as the increasingly pathetic saxophonist, refusing even once to ask for the audience's sympathies. A self-absorbed, deeply hypocritical figure who's more of a brute than the brute he accuses Loulou of being, it's somehow fitting that André should finally be left to blow his own horn.

(October 2006)

Loulou is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

1,001 Films: "The Big Red One" (1980)

A bona fide American film maudit, The Big Red One was snubbed by audiences who'd rather have seen its juvenile lead Mark Hamill fighting intergalactic battles, cut by its producers, and even seized by Manchester's Vice Squad when they misunderstood the threat to public decency suggested by the title. In fact, the big red one in question is the rouged badge of courage sewn to the epaulettes of the First Infantry Division serving America through World Wars I and II - the exact same division that maverick writer-director Sam Fuller himself once served with. Much of what's great about the film is in its stitching - and its suggestion that, in wartime, any outfit was as likely to be torn or ripped apart as remain intact - which is why even a slightly trimmed version might have seemed like an injustice.

It opens with unnamed grunt Lee Marvin knifing a German soldier within hours of the Armistice being signed at the end of WWI, then flashes forward to WW2 and finds Marvin - now promoted to Sergeant - heading a youthful battalion's march north from Africa through Sicily to Omaha Beach and beyond. His fresh-faced men are soldiers of fortune indeed: blessed with a preternaturally lucky streak, they make their way through a series of varyingly fortuitous events, assisting during an attack on a Belgian mental asylum, and after a woman gives birth in a tank. (There's one great linguistic gag here, as the soldiers hesitate to use the French for push - poussez - because it sounds like the American word for what these accidental midwives are looking at.)

The picaresque results are something like Candide as retold by a service veteran. We get the expected sniper hunts and beach landings, sequences which must have influenced Spielberg in the run-up to Saving Private Ryan, but Fuller's personal experience of war, and his journalist's eye, keeps manifesting in the unusual emphasis placed on haunting details like the crucifix planted on a battlefield, the watch on a dead soldier's wrist, or Marvin casually tossing an eviscerated testicle as though it were a dud grenade. A certain morality is evident, but the film seems a quieter and more nuanced statement than the fevered disgust Peckinpah displayed in Cross of Iron: this isn't necessarily war as good or bad, but war as it just might be - a competing mass of narratives, some formative and redemptive, others repetitive and destructive.

A reconstruction of the film, overseen by critic Richard Schickel and running to two hours 40 minutes (as opposed to the theatrically released two-hour cut), was finally released in the UK in April 2005, eight years after the director's passing. This version - which opens with the title card "This film is fictional life inspired by actual death" - makes a strong case for the film being Fuller's most personal and heartfelt endeavour via the reinsertion of several new and telling details. Condoms are unfolded over rifles to keep the water out of them; the battalion is put to sleep by German propaganda broadcasts; Algerians remove American ears as trophies. 

One extraordinary sequence sees Marvin putting an abrupt end to what was presumably his first gay screen kiss ("You've got bad breath, Fritz"), and a love scene, between Hamill and Stéphane Audran at the Belgian asylum, serves a similar purpose to that between Martin Sheen and Aurore Clément in Apocalypse Now Redux: a note of tenderness with which to break up the carnage. An extended coda in Central Europe as the Armistice approaches gets a bit samey, but better connects ending to opening. Generally, this version benefits from greater density of incident, and helps flesh out what was already a pretty fascinating skeleton. A couple of dialogue additions also point up what a balanced piece of frontline storytelling this is: if it has Candide on one shoulder, it almost certainly has Robert Capa on the other.

(March 2003/April 2005)

The Big Red One - The Reconstruction is available on DVD through Warner Home Video. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 11-13, 2017:

1 (1) Dunkirk (12A) ***

2 (new) Annabelle: Creation (15)
3 (new) Atomic Blonde (15)
4 (2) The Emoji Movie (U)
5 (4) Despicable Me 3 (U)
6 (5) Girls Trip (15) ***
7 (6) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
8 (3) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (12A)
9 (7) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
10 (new) The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature (U) **


My top five: 
1. Howards End

2. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
3. "Prick Up Your Ears"
4. The Untamed
5. A Ghost Story

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (5) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
3 (3) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
4 (8) Sing (U) ***
5 (4) The Great Wall (12)
6 (6) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
7 (7) Power Rangers (12) **
8 (2) Split (15) ***
9 (10) Patriots Day (15)
10 (new) Williams (15) ****


My top five: 
1. I Am Not Your Negro

2. Lady Macbeth
3. Williams
4. Raw
5. Their Finest

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Toy Story (Saturday, BBC1, 5.15pm)
2. Forbidden Planet [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 1.45pm)
3. Up in the Air (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
4. The Pirates! In An Adventures with Scientists! (Monday, BBC2, 1.30pm)
5. Flushed Away (Wednesday, BBC2, 1.35pm)

"An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power" (Guardian 18/08/17)

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power ****
Dirs: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk. Documentary with: Al Gore, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Donald Trump. 98 mins. Cert: PG

Ten record-breaking summers on from An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore doubles down. Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s galvanising doc accompanies the former VP through 2015-16, by which point he’d pivoted from touring pro-bono slideshows to addressing the Climate Leadership program initiated by the first movie’s success. Cohen and Shenk don’t deviate radically from that film’s formula. Again, excerpts of Gore’s orations – manna for bar-chart aficionados – are bolstered with visits to natural disaster sites (as Irwin Allen foresaw, extreme weather is inherently cinematic), while behind-the-scenes diversions find our host battling to discuss temperature hikes with an election-crazed media and an expert-intolerant public.

Other climates have changed, then, and the sequel benefits dramatically from its expanded sense of the challenges facing Gore – everything from the needs of developing nations to the Bataclan terrorists. (One underdiscussed by-product of climate change: an increasingly hot-headed world.) Candidate Trump looms, dismissing science as a wussy liberal fetish: an updated coda sees Gore abandoning his conciliatory rhetoric to swing for an individual currently undoing much of the hard diplomatic work observed herein. Railing against rising tides, he emerges as a cannier performer and a more compelling subject than he was in 2006; a message that sounded critical then has become no less urgent with time. 

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power opens in selected cinemas from today.

"The Hitman's Bodyguard" (Guardian 18/08/17)

The Hitman’s Bodyguard **
Dir: Patrick Hughes. With: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek. 118 mins. Cert: 15

This fumbled buddy-movie throwback touts here-for-the-money stars as compensation for leaden pacing and a futzing, bum-obsessed script. Any remaining life in its tired set-up – security operative Ryan Reynolds drags assassin Samuel L. Jackson to The Hague to testify against a Belarussian war criminal (Gary Oldman, inevitably) – soon gets stifled by pointless flashbacks and detours and a suicidally phlegmy palette. It earns the distinction of being the first shoot-‘em-up to reroute its leads via (an unrepresentative recreation of) Coventry city centre, but that’s the problem: only belatedly, with its medium-octane chases around Amsterdam, does this dopey endeavour become the freewheeling romp the trailers promised. For an action-comedy, its timing is lousy.

The Hitman's Bodyguard opens in cinemas nationwide today. 

"Napping Princess" (Guardian 18/08/17)

Napping Princess **
Dir: Kenji Kamiyama. Animation with the voices of: Mitsuki Takahata, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Tomoya Maeno, Arata Furuta. 111 mins. Cert: PG

A fake-out opening establishes the twinned realms through which Kenji Kamiyama’s midlist anime meanders: patriarchal kingdom Heartland is revealed as the recurring dreamscape of somnolent schoolgirl Kokone, trapped at home with a grief-stricken mechanic father in a town some distance from Tokyo. Toggling between the two, Kamiyama demonstrates a pleasing, Kore-eda-like eye for suburban specifics, but the charm diminishes upon the segue into corporate conspiracy involving missing tablets and giant robots. Some fun satiric footnotes early on – Heartland’s compulsory auto industry employment leaves it gridlocked for days – but it starts feeling fairly mechanised itself, every clank of those boysy Transformer knock-offs further drowning out its wistful heroine. 

Napping Princess is now playing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

All the feels: "The Untamed"

The 2013 Mexican feature Heli was such a brutal and bruising depiction of the collateral damage incurred in the war on drugs that you wondered how writer-director Amat Escalante was going to top it. Well, wonder no more. Escalante's follow-up The Untamed takes a subject that is just as potent and equally close to home (and the bone), and pursues it in a striking new direction: here is a dreamy, fairytale-like vision of sexuality run amok, unleashing its terrors on a whole different set of bodies. Right from the off, indeed: there probably won't be a grabbier opening image in cinema this year, that of a naked young woman in a dingy basement expelling - whether in pleasure or pain - a sizeable, slimy tentacle from between her legs.

For a while, this sequence is allowed to seem like the nightmare or fantasy of another woman, married to a macho good-for-nothing whose interest in her extends no further than taking her indifferently from behind every now and again. Yet it soon transpires that the younger woman exists in the same reality, and indeed the same social sphere: we see her being treated for a puncture wound by a doctor who turns out to be the other woman's nephew, and furthermore the man who's having it away on the DL with her AC/DC husband. It is, how you say, tangled. Not least visually: if the plot strands might be described as vaguely tentacular, that's as nothing compared to the way Escalante sets his camera to snaking around.

One shot, as virtuosic as anything in Heli, follows a car up a dirt road to an isolated scrap of countryside, briefly registering the presence of a corpse in the extreme bottom-right of the frame, before pulling back to find the police and ambulance crews arriving at what has now been established as a crime scene. The tentacle motif is everywhere one looks: in tree roots, the branches we see pounding a window during a storm, the tendrils of a river as viewed from above. What do all these visual clues amount to? Something about nature, possibly, and its refusal to run entirely straight; and almost certainly towards an idea of the body as a site of ongoing conflict. The hubby puts his bulk to no greater ends to fighting and fucking; time and again, though, he's rushed to the hospital to attend a young son beset by allergies.

The latter delights in colouring in garish faces with felt tips and crayons, but the whole film seems to be filled with erratic, lopsided, crudely drawn human forms. Escalante can be blunt about this: he piles up the naked flesh like a chophouse worker, and there are scenes here that play right into the sticky mitts of Japanese comic-book enthusiasts, among other fetishists. Yet just as Heli seemed to be getting at the sickness of Mexican society - the sort of sickness that might well drive anybody to drugs - so The Untamed appears, on some level, to be offering a critique of a particular strain of Latin machismo via the figure of the useless, closeted husband, who dismisses anyone who displays the slightest sensitivity as a faggot while enthusiastically pursuing the cock: the kind of comically blundering meathead who thrusts a pistol into his pocket only to shoot himself in the thigh. (And all the while, the women lie with creatures who fill their every hole, apparently emerging satisfied from the experience.)

There's a deliberate contrast between behaviour that could be deemed primal and that which is more civilised (nursing, child-rearing), though you'll have to accept it's an extreme one: one among many post-film discussion points will be the frankly astonishing mid-film orgy that replaces the ageing swingers of Ulrich Seidl or Gaspar Noe provocations with computer-generated animals, and winds up looking like a David Attenborough wet(land) dream, or something one might stray on in the darker recesses of the Internet. (Let's just say that, at last year's London Film Festival, the German entry Wild - in which a meek secretary fell in love and set about cohabiting with a wolf - had some competition for the prize of Best Animal Handling.)

The mystery that goes unresolved is surely that of life, what starts it and what sustains it: Escalante is drawn between his leading lady's thighs for reasons that seem at least as questioning as they might be prurient (what have you got up in there?), though the presence of the two elders who run the cabin in the woods where our heroine submits to those tentacles remains unclear to the end. Are they a couple of rogue scientists? Representatives of the fates? Or just doggers who get off on some really weird shit? Because The Untamed is allusive and elliptical, because it keeps sliding out of your grasp just when you think you have it, the blunt-force impact of Heli may be beyond its reach - yet it's full of adhesive ideas and images no North American filmmaker would approach with a bargepole, and which may yet slither down the insides of your eyelids once you've turned the lights out for the evening. Sleep tight.

The Untamed opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on September 25.