Monday, 27 February 2017

On DVD: "American Honey"

Without abandoning her favoured 4:3 aspect ratio, Andrea Arnold has expanded her horizons with each new project. She navigated increasingly fraught urban scenarios in her short Wasp and features Red Road and Fish Tank; she ran wild on the Moors with 2011’s radical rethink of Wuthering Heights. Her next step takes her closer to Hollywood than one might have imagined of a filmmaker whose instincts are realist. American Honey is preceded by the Universal logo, and plays out entirely on US soil, where things are bigger, louder and brighter; perhaps it’s unsurprising Arnold should have lost her bearings a little.

That Arnold seeks to open up a new angle on America is evident just from her opening scene, of a young woman in a supermarket dumpster, retrieving a frozen chicken. The girl is Star (Sasha Lane), and immediately we can tell she is as much of the fringes as Arnold’s previous heroines. Something is stirred within her, however, when she spies a minibus full of tanned, boisterous contemporaries pulling into the carpark: here is both a ready-made gang and a family more appealing than her own grim domestic set-up. Even in this most fiercely individualistic of nations, the need to belong is strong.

No matter that they number Shia LaBeouf with ear studs and ponytail, she runs away with this merry band of outlaws – not circus folk, for all their off-duty rough-and-tumble; rather, they form a fly-by-night, seat-of-the-pants operation flogging magazine subscriptions. It’s a weird way into the wider country, and Arnold seems at least semi-aware of the irony her protagonists should be channelling their abundant energies into rustling up interest for what circulation figures would suggest is a dying medium – but she also wants us to share these kids’ wide-eyed wonder as they reach some new point on the map.

Thanks to her resident cinematography genius Robbie Ryan, these sights are no less impressive for being viewed in 4:3 through a grimy minibus window; though square and cramped, every frame hums with life of some kind. The menagerie Arnold rounded up in Wasp and Fish Tank is here expanded to include flying squirrels, brown bears, even the worm at the bottom of a mescal bottle. (One reason she may have shipped out: it gives her whole new species to classify.)

Her ability to find poetry in poverty is also much in evidence – and, unlike in other Universal releases, that poverty is certainly apparent. LaBeouf’s Jake, variously compared to a gangster and Donald Trump, possibly exerts the hold he does because he’s the first man Star’s ever met who owns a suit jacket. Still, even in this moderate-to-small form, business can be a cruel place: bubblegum-snapping overseer Krystal (Riley Keough, coolly terrific) obliges her lowest-selling salespeople to wrestle for the others’ amusement.

The flaw with American Honey is how all this life has been shaped. At an unwieldy 163 minutes, the film has the feel of a rough cut, and while part of me was impressed that an outsider had been allowed to turn in something this uncompromising, my shifting buttocks noted four or five too many scenes of the gang hanging in car parks listening to aggressive rap music, and three or four more of them razzing one another in the minibus while listening to aggressive rap music. (I suspect many viewers will want less mixtape, more movie.)

Fish Tank snapped into thriller mode late on; Wuthering Heights had Bronte’s eternal passions as a throughline. All American Honey has to sustain it is Star, Jake and Krystal’s playground love triangle, unless you’re particularly compelled by the particulars of hawking magazine subscriptions. Even here, I didn’t buy that people would so graciously welcome these urchins into their homes to discuss the finer print, and I don’t believe that, in the 21st century, even a tearaway like Star would jump into so many strangers’ cars and trucks with such carefree abandon.

There’s a small miracle here, and it’s that a model of filmmaking arrived at on the sink estates of Glasgow and Essex should have been transplanted West, and taken root so. Yet American Honey struck this viewer as Arnold’s least impactful film to date, losing its moments of wonder and rapture amid an unvaryingly dreamy haze. As it drifts into its third hour, the film amply demonstrates Arnold’s near-unparalleled ability to get down and stay down with the kids. Those of us whose afternoons don’t, perhaps, stretch into infinity might just prefer her to get on with it, that’s all.

American Honey is now available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

On demand: "The Black Stallion"

When they say they don't make 'em like they used to, The Black Stallion is presumably close to what they mean. For starters, there is the matter of that title, nowadays a source of sniggering; then that someone should have cared to do a live-action adventure featuring an actual horse, rather than a pixellated equivalent; then that said project should have been entrusted to a skilled cinematographer, rather than any passing hack. But then this was the late 1970s, when an independently minded producer like Francis Ford Coppola still had carte blanche to assemble his personnel as he saw fit, and before the Star Wars sequels had insisted that every family film should arrive alongside a thousand marketing tie-ins.

Right down to one very knowing piece of casting, this was at heart a throwback to the matinees of the moviebrats' youth - in this instance, those kid-and-pet confections (think National Velvet, The Yearling, Old Yeller) lent greater scope, texture and intensity by the team Coppola assembled for the project: director Carroll Ballard, writer Melissa Mathison (warming up for E.T. by adapting Walter Farley's novel), cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, several prominent examples of that doughty strain of character actor that seemed to flourish in the 1970s, plus the best horse wranglers and whisperers in the business.

Opening with - James Cameron be damned - cinema's most terrifying shipwreck, it's a tale of abandonment transformed into something else: that of a freckle-faced boy in ragged PJs (Kelly Reno, the closest American film got to Kes's David Bradley), who washes up on a Mediterranean island, his only playmate the jittery, jetblack steed who carried him safely ashore. The first hour maintains an air of documentary, and is all the more captivating for it. We're watching a little kid trying to tempt a wild beast his way with but a palm leaf and a handful of good intentions, and Ballard is wise enough to know when to fade down Carmine Coppola's romantic orchestrations and let this process play out in suspenseful silence.

The second half, in which our heroes are returned to post-War suburbia, proves inevitably more conventional, and you can tell this is a product of the movie mainstream from the manner in which Mathison and Ballard elide the trauma this boy has been through in the pursuit of redemptive sporting glory; it can feel as though everybody involved was keen to use these two hours to bring that element of wildness in the film's own DNA under control. (Which may, in fact, be what Coppola required - a safe bet - once Apocalypse Now began spiralling in the opposite direction: for all the company's invention and daring, here was one of American Zoetrope's few bankable successes.)

The two-hour running time would, one suspects, be another aspect deemed untenable within the context of the modern multiplex: some of the dialogue in which Mickey Rooney's aged trainer swears the kid to their not-so-little (equine) secret would surely have to go, or need a little finessing, lest it risk misinterpretation. Still, it remains handsome right through to the final furlong, and retains that feel - rare and therefore cherishable in U/PG-rated fare - of properly weathered, passed-down life experience. When, late in the day, a passing rag-and-bone man asks our boy "What happened to you?", it makes sense that he should reply with a single word: "Everything."

The Black Stallion is now streaming on Netflix.  

Sunday, 26 February 2017

On demand: "The Ivory Game"

In 2015, Netflix earned one of its first Oscar nominations for the documentary Virunga, about the fight to protect a Congolese wildlife reserve from increasingly rapacious poachers - a stand-off that generated scenes closer to Assault on Precinct 13 than anything in the generally serene Dave Attenborough back catalogue. The Ivory Game operates in much the same vein, although it expands the field of survey to Kenya and Tanzania, natural habitat of those elephants whose ivory is routinely hacked off for sale to rich pricks in China. This new breed of nature doc has two major selling points. The first remains the wildlife itself, now filmed up close by GoPro cameras or from above by drones: here, we marvel at the prehistoric otherworldliness of the elephants, lumbering yet graceful and somehow, despite their mass, as cuddly as Dumbo ever was. Secondly, and more thrillingly, these films have the night-vision footage of those patrols going after the poachers, innately cinematic sorties that sometimes result in abject horror: ele-carcasses slashed up in the most savage fashion. Occasionally, though, they arrive at a happier ending - the arrest of those responsible.

Around these setpieces, directors Richard Ladhani and Kief Davidson weave an involving behind-the-scenes drama that showcases the investigations of Wildleaks, a whistleblowing website to which tipoffs can be uploaded anonymously. This strand allows for some wider analysis of the global ivory trade, which begins to look very much like any other area of capitalism: those poor dumb suckers employed to do the actual killing receive, on average, a mere 6% of every sale, leaving those higher up the criminal chain to pocket the rest. For a while, the film seems to be casting around for structure, torn between responding to reports of poaching and pulling back to provide an overview of the market, yet - nimbly deploying onscreen maps - Ladhani and Davidson eventually start to connect their own dots, showing us first where the ivory is harvested (and by whom), then following the money into the cities of the Far East to show us where it ends up and the staggering amounts it goes for.

What begins in Africa becomes a very specifically Asian concern: as one of our gamekeeper heroes notes, this may be the first time that one man - Chinese president Xi Jinping - holds the fate of an entire species in his hands. Soon thereafter, we get a sense of evidence being collected, a case being made, the net closing in, due in no small part to the efficiency of those first responders on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania. The elephants may provide the publicity images, in other words, but the heroes are resolutely human: individuals remaining steadfast and phlegmatic in the face of rampant market forces. At one point late on, we witness one of the activists talking excitedly about an upcoming meeting with Hillary Clinton to discuss the elephants' fate - framed as a major development in raising awareness of the ivory trade. You can only shudder to think what will become of these creatures - the pachyderms, and their protectors - now there's a big game hunter in the White House.

The Ivory Game is now streaming on Netflix.      

Saturday, 25 February 2017

"Rangoon" (Guardian 24/02/17)

Rangoon ****
Dir: Vishal Bhardwaj. With: Kangana Ranaut, Shahid Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Richard McCabe. 150 mins. Cert: 12A

In this time of pronounced division, it’s reassuring to know East and West can still play nicely together. Vishal Bhardwaj, the director of several impressive Shakespeare-goes-Hindi adaptations (Maqbool, Omkara), here teams with sometime Spielberg screenwriter Matthew Robbins for a sweeping WW2 epic that ironically describes a collision of worlds: on one side of the widescreen frame showbusiness, on the other the theatre of war. This being Bollywood, the centre is occupied by a love triangle enacted by more characterful types than those Pearl Harbor excavated: a spoilt silver-screen goddess (Kangana Ranaut) drafted to entertain British Indian Army troops in Burma, the suave yet possessive one-armed impresario accompanying her (Saif Ali Khan) and the no-nonsense soldier boy (Shahid Kapoor) left chaperoning our heroine after her convoy is bombed.

The jungle-bound first half deliberately throws back to The African Queen, with Kapoor toughening up his charge while generating old-school chemistry with Ranaut. Yet as in his Kashmir-set Hamlet adaptation Haider, Bhardwaj also displays a sure feel for the wider conflicts surrounding his main players, painting a vivid broad-strokes picture of an India divided between the peaceable Gandhi and the punchier Subhas Chandra Bose, its British masters (capably embodied by a bilingual Richard McCabe) and a new future for itself. Post-Slumdog, Hollywood and Bollywood have repeatedly attempted to collaborate, with mixed results: here, they’ve produced a properly expansive and enthralling afternoon matinee, owing as much to the David Lean back catalogue as it does to the industry that gifted us Lagaan – and those films didn’t have dance numbers about winding up Hitler.

Rangoon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday, 24 February 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of February 17-19, 2016:
1 (1) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
2 (2) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
3 (new) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
4 (3) Sing (U) ***
5 (new) The Great Wall (12A)
6 (new) Hidden Figures (PG) **
7 (4) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
8 (6) Lion (12A) ***
9 (5) La La Land (12A) ***
10 (new) Moonlight (15) ****


My top five:   
1. Toni Erdmann
2. Loving
3. Rangoon
4. Moonlight
5. The Fits

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) The Girl on the Train (15) *
2 (2) Deepwater Horizon (15) ***
3 (3) Bad Moms (15) ** 
4 (5) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
5 (4) Suicide Squad (15)
6 (new) The Magnificent Seven (12) **
7 (7) Star Trek Beyond (12) ***
8 (6) Sausage Party (15) ***
9 (re) X-Men: Apocalypse (12)
10 (8) War Dogs (15)


My top five:  
1. Train to Busan
2. I, Daniel Blake
3. Ouija: Origin of Evil
4. American Honey
5. Cameraperson 

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Insider [above] (Wednesday, C4, 1am)
2. In Which We Serve (Saturday, BBC2, 8.10am)
3. The Terminator (Sunday, five, 11.15pm)
4. Badlands (Sunday, BBC2, 12.05am)
5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Saturday, C4, 9pm) 

"It's Only the End of the World" (Catholic Herald 24/02/17)

Even an enfant terrible must grow up sooner or later. Prodigal French-Canadian Xavier Dolan’s trouble is that he’s done so along the Cannes Croisette, where he screened his debut (2009’s I Killed My Mother) aged just 20, then won acclaim for increasingly ambitious works (trans drama Laurence Anyways, Hitchcockian thriller Tom at the Farm), before seeing latest It’s Only the End of the World (***, 15, 98 mins) pilloried by non-Francophone critics. One accusation was that Dolan had blanded out – to reuse the titular qualifier, that he’d “only” added subtitles to those awards-hungry dysfunctional-family dramas that premiere every year, restyling August: Osage County in a striped Breton top.

Following the bristling expansiveness of Dolan’s 2014 opus Mommy, this adaptation of the late Jean-Luc Lagarce’s autobiographical play can, admittedly, feel self-contained. After a twelve-year exile, talk-of-the-town writer Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) returns to the countryside for dinner with his clan: bluff older sibling Antoine (Vincent Cassel), apparently determined to spend the occasion with his back to the room, his empathetic wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard), younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), and – a Dolan staple, as per those titles – their overbearing maman (Nathalie Baye). As convention dictates, Louis has news to break; the hard part, naturellement, will be getting a word in.

Dolan finds an arresting visual analogue for this domestic ambush, composing each set-to as a wall of looming close-ups. In the year of I, Daniel Blake and Toni Erdmann’s affecting naturalism, those Cannes critics perhaps resented being forcefed such conspicuous starriness: few directors have dwelled to this extent on Cassel’s abrasive cragginess (scabbed knuckles, iron-filing stubble), or the melting softness in Cotillard’s gaze and smile. Yet the tactic works dramatically, punching up how these relatives have become strangers whose gestures require close interpretation; it’s moving indeed when the camera finally looks Antoine in the eye, and spots years of broiling intellectual inferiority.

Nothing else quite subverts reunion formula. Lagarce provides Dolan with one loaded conversation after another, permitting everybody their moment until liberation or exasperation is achieved. Still, if World arrives as Dolan’s most conventional drama, its quiet mastery suggests how much he’s learnt about performance, staging, even life. One sign of maturity, given this director’s previously gaudy tastes, is the decision to shoot in something close to natural light: a pall of melancholy hangs over this household that neither pleasantries nor pop songs can dispel. You can go home, clearly, but at 27, Dolan’s now old enough to intuit it may never be the same, or worse besides – that you might find it exactly the same.

It's Only the End of the World opens in selected cinemas from today.

Ladies who launch: "Hidden Figures"

The surprise hit of this year's awards cycle - taking $145m to date in the US, by comparison with La La Land's $135m - Hidden Figures turns out to be a very old-school entertainment, operating in much the same vein as 2011's much-feted The Help. Given that this awards season has thrown up such singular, elliptical works as Moonlight and Loving, this overt crowdpleaser is perhaps the race story the majority of Academy voters will be most comfortable with, shaping a notable and underheralded true-life story - that of the African-American women who helped get NASA's space program off the ground - for easy multiplex matinee consumption; its merits as cinema, rather than business or opportunity for industry virtue-signalling, strike me as rather more open to question.

Theodore Melfi's film, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction account by the director and Allison Schroeder, opens in 1961, at the start of a pivotal decade in space exploration. Rather than the usual Caucasian male perspective on these events, however, we're offered something else: a celebration of three black women - Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) - employed as NASA mathematicians during this period. Despite being treated as ancillary staff and second-class citizens by some of their superiors and colleagues, these gals came through with the calculations that succeeded in putting John Glenn et al. into orbit. You've heard of The Right Stuff; well here, at long last, is The Non-White Stuff. 

"Civil rights aren't always civil," posits Mary's husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) in an early scene, yet while Hidden Figures unfolds in the opening years of an altogether tumultuous decade back on Planet Earth, it proves civil to a fault: genteel, PG-rated, and - as its original Pharrell Williams compositions segue seamlessly into its soundtrack of period hits - all too blandly and smoothly digestible, breaking down every last one of its plot and character beats so that even the Odeon's slower popcorn-munchers can grasp the significance of what's happening. Melfi, who oversaw 2014's pretty lazy Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent, most often seems to be angling not for awards but for a gig directing for the Hallmark Channel.

The complex business of astro geometry - overseen by Kevin Costner, with our heroines hindered by an uptight Jim Parsons and a brittle Kirsten Dunst on sets that look and feel very much like sets (the space inserts, similarly, have zero atmosphere) - is but a peripheral element, dutifully logged alongside material that would appear to have its basis in savvy producers' notes: a plain-sailing romance between Henson and devoted man-in-uniform Mahershala Ali, afterwork bonding scenes of eating, drinking and dancing. The literal running joke that sees Henson dashing from one side of NASA's Langley campus to the other to get to and from the institution's designated "coloured" bathroom is a rather too obvious screenwriting shortcut, designed to jolly up the era's myriad iniquities before delivering a neat, would-be heartwarming punchline.

All that ultimately distinguishes it is the casting of women of colour in roles the movies haven't typically associated with women of colour. (Even here, though, you need only compare it with the vibrant characterisations of, say, TV's Orange is the New Black to see how Hidden Figures' defining shade is beige.) The leads are experienced enough to sneak traces of personality into cardboard cutout creations: Spencer, matronly and watchful, squeezes a few chuckles from her duets with the agency's new IBM computer; Monáe, playing the designated sparky one, pours warmth into the sidebar detailing Mary's struggles to be taken seriously in her aspirations to be an engineer.

Henson, though, is sensible bordering on cautious, in a way that fits Katherine Johnson's predicament but also makes one wonder: is this generally effusive performer reining herself in to allay our suspicions Hidden Figures might have better functioned as a shoot-for-the-moon star vehicle - The Katherine Johnson Story - rather than the somewhat slack-shouldered, Help-y ensemble piece it's been converted into? Is it the case that the studios simply wouldn't have funded a film focused on a little-known African-American woman - that it was a safer spread bet to present audiences with three demographic-spanning leads, no matter that they have to be crowbarred into the same shot? (The cowardice may run deeper than just the filmmaking.)

In the end, it's the same old Hollywood trad - as signalled by the casting of rent-a-coach Costner, bringing his usual gravitas to bear on more or less the same white ally part as Emma Stone took up in The Help - and its accessibility and success may yet lend it a wider social function: much as you can imagine Moonlight serving as a balm for young men wrestling with their sexuality, Hidden Figures might just tempt young women (and young women of colour, especially) into a closer engagement with maths and science. As a standalone film, though, it looks like a perilously flimsy launchpad, constructed of equal parts chocolate-box wrapping paper, Robert McKee-derived cliché and wispy good intentions you could as easily poke your finger through as applaud.

Hidden Figures is now playing in cinemas nationwide.