Sunday, 18 February 2018

That sinking feeling: "The Mercy"

Creatives keep returning to the story of Donald Crowhurst - a name in fleeting newspaper headlines at the end of the 1960s - doubtless because the story threatens to communicate so much about Britishness, our aspirations and our isolation. (A Remainer might stretch and suggest there might be reasons why he should have bubbled back up into the collective consciousness at this particular moment.) Crowhurst, you may or may not recall, was the amateur yachtsman who enthusiastically signed up to take part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, despite having no applicable experience and entirely the wrong equipment for the task; he soon found himself adrift in his stricken vessel, hopelessly alone, and going ever so slowly out of his mind. This not-so-able seaman's plight previously inspired 2006's outstanding documentary Deep Water, narrated by a never-spookier Tilda Swinton and making considerable use of Crowhurst's logbooks and diaries; it's also the subject of indie adventurer Simon Rumley's forthcoming psychological drama Crowhurst, which one suspects may well retain some of that earlier film's chill.

For now, we have The Mercy, a brisk middlebrow retelling that finds director James Marsh, hot off the back of 2014's The Theory of Everything, doing everything possible to make the sailor's experience on the high seas a little less of an ordeal than it might have been at the time. In Colin Firth, an actor who's quietly perfected a diffidence that may or may not be inseparable from Englishness, Marsh's film finds its ballast: here is the kind of performance that might well have factored into this year's awards conversation had everyone else around committed to it more fully. The casting is commercially minded, but very sound. Firth handles this boat as well as Crowhurst did - which is to say well enough to steer it out of Teignmouth harbour - but never so confidently as to suggest he might get it round the globe; his generally groomed star persona makes Crowhurst's slide into ranting, seaweed-covered dishevelment all the more shocking and impactful. This Crowhurst is a would-be dashing blade who realises, mere minutes after signing up to this romantic venture, that he has in fact backed himself into the tightest of corners, with no easy way out; the film's most gripping sequences, watching the sailor desperately striving to fix up his leaky trimaran, recall 2013's All is Lost, only tacked in a different direction. This is no parable of survival, but a story of male pride, and the dark waters it can carry us into.

The trouble is that Marsh and regular Soderbergh screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects) have decided this ought not to be the whole story - or, rather, that that story might just be too stark for an audience (and particularly Firth's core audience) to take. So we also get the sailor's reminiscences of the Laura Ashley life he shared with wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) and kids, intended to serve as compensation for the manner in which Crowhurst absented himself from these loved ones; there are cutaways to David Thewlis as a jovial Northern press agent that I think are meant to provide comic relief, and - at the script's most superfluous - a midfilm round-up of the progress of the Golden Globe Race's better prepared participants. You could argue that what Marsh and Burns are offering us is context - a greater sense of the consolations and pressures Crowhurst was sailing away from - but there's a jolting disconnect between the quasi-impressionistic tale of survival Firth is acting up a storm in and the greatly more conventional period piece going on ashore; for a story hinged on increasingly insupportable solitude, The Mercy sure feels over-populated.

This may perhaps be a reflection on the director's newfound standing within the industry. Ever since coming in from the cold of documentary production - with 2008's Oscar-winning Man on Wire - Marsh has had resources enough at his disposal to make the bigger pictures and cast A-list actresses in roles that demand no more of them than peeling potatoes and doing the hoovering, not to mention recreate the Sunday Times newsroom as it was in 1968, no manner that such an elaborately appointed out dilutes some of the power of the story he's come to tell. As successive iterations have demonstrated, that power resides almost exclusively in the sight of a man on a leaky boat in the middle of nowhere, living a lie he was uniquely unsuited to sustaining, and facing up to a life-or-death decision - an existential conundrum (momentum = madness?) shared by the no less wayward pioneers Marsh depicted in 1999's breakthrough documentary Wisconsin Death Trip.

A director weighed down by recent Academy and BAFTA laurels is unlikely to have the creative freedom to make a film as open-ended, hallucinatory and fundamentally bleak as that, however, and so we find Marsh once more feeling an obligation to round off and tidy up after himself: The Mercy heads towards a coda determined to provide both a measure of closure to the Crowhurst clan, and - for the wider audience - a way-too-neat lesson in what we might learn from its protagonist's actions. Gained over several decades of their own experience, this director's steady-handed professionalism and his leading man's admirable commitment ensures the finished feature just about meets its original brief as functioning matinee fare - but one can't help but think Crowhurst's story is a story to haunt our dreams, as it did in the wake of the documentary, not merely to kill a couple of the hours separating Doctors from A Place in the Sun.

The Mercy is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Saturday, 17 February 2018

From the archive: "There's Something About Mary"

One might claim There's Something About Mary as film zero of the current American comedy revival, and way ahead of the curve on the Friends Reunited phenomenon. A writer named Ted (Ben Stiller) attempts in adult life to track down his childhood sweetheart Mary; he finds her in the form of Cameron Diaz, only everybody's fucking with him, and she's surrounded by suitors prepared to play very nasty indeed in the hope of getting into her underwear. You can tell this was going for something different from the studio comedies of the era from the one early scene that makes a mountain (enlisting Mary's parents, the police, a fire truck, an ambulance) out of the molehill of Ted getting his testicles caught in his fly, but also from the way the Farrellys leave Stiller, the nominal hero of the piece, on the sidelines for long stretches of the first half while going in pursuit of some new, generally silly tangent.

Four screenwriters are credited, which may explain why There's Something About Mary often feels like a mishmash of disparate elements, as though the Farrellys had been drafted in to lighten up something that originally played far darker; the emphasis put on the extraneous in places pushes the running time closer to two hours than 90 minutes, another trait of the New American Comedy. Nevertheless, some of the Farrelly formula - irresistible, once upon a time - is established: a faultlessly integrated cast, with disabled characters both grouchy and saintly, a close attention to even minor characters (Lin Shaye's increasingly tanned speedfreak, surely an inspiration for Matt Lucas's Bubbles de Vere from Little Britain; Harland Williams as a suspicious hitchhiker), and image-warping celebrity cameos (former Miami Dolphins quarterback Brett Favre is enlisted as a deus ex machina who nearly steals off with the girl).

The Farrellys look to have taken the film on at least partly as a challenge, trying to meet the demands of the gross-out and date movie crowds alike, and to protect an innocent and pure central relationship from a supporting cast of creeps, weirdos and psychopaths. (One reason Ted is kept off-screen for so long: he's going through a nightmare as black as Griffin Dunne's in After Hours, allowing the directors to establish the very bad things the film's other men will do for love.) Any problems of tone, and the brothers can simply switch scene to sunny Miami, and bring on Jonathan Richman as an unlikely Greek chorus. The magic isn't quite there yet - all the business with the dog (up to the full bodycast) is pretty basic, the plotting gets haphazard towards the end, and I'd still maintain that Stuck on You is the funnier comedy - but it did nobody any harm at the time: Stiller, previously better known internationally as a director (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy) than as a performer, became a bona fide star off the back of it, and Diaz is adorable as the sort of slightly geeky but basically gorgeous sports nut all nerds (and nerdy writer-directors) like to imagine is out there somewhere, just waiting for a nice guy like them to come along.

(March 2007)

There's Something About Mary screens on five tonight at 10.30pm.

Friday, 16 February 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 9-11, 2018:

1 (new) Fifty Shades Freed (18)

2 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (2) Coco (PG) ***
4 (4) Early Man (PG)
5 (3) Darkest Hour (PG) **
6 (5) Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)
7 (6) Den of Thieves (15) **
8 (8) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
9 (9) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
10 (7) The Post (12A) ***


My top five: 
1. The Shape of Water

2. Loveless
3. The Mercy
4. Phantom Thread
5. Journey's End

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
2 (1) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
3 (2) Victoria and Abdul (12A) **
4 (3It: Chapter One (15) ***
5 (5) Dunkirk (12) ***
6 (new) The Highway Rat (U)
7 (6) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
8 (18) Despicable Me 3 (U)
9 (4) Kingsman: Double Pack (15) *
10 (new) Flatliners (15)


My top five: 
1. A Woman's Life

2. Beach Rats
3. The Party
4. Loving Vincent
5. Strangled

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Third Man [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2.15pm)
2. The Producers (Saturday, BBC2, 12.40am)
3. Young Frankenstein (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)
4. There's Something About Mary (Saturday, five, 10.30pm)
5. Our Kind of Traitor (Sunday, C4, 10.15pm)

Human flow: "The Shape of Water"

If at first you feel a touch queasy around The Shape of Water, the second most prominent beauty-and-the-beast romance of the past twelve months, that may be attributable to the colouring. Guillermo del Toro's lavish fantasy unfolds in a particular shade of aquamarine previously most associated with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, the early 21st century's foremost Marmite movie - and here is another intensely art-designed study of loneliness centred on an entirely winsome heroine. (Jeunet has accused del Toro of plagiarising both from that film, and his earlier Delicatessen.) Is it, we might wonder, the interior decoration that scares potential suitors off? This jaded jade - like the roseate mud of del Toro's previous Crimson Peak - gets everywhere. It seems to have seeped into the walls of the Cold War-era Government research facility within which our mute heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is employed as a lowly cleaner. It rhymes with the gills of the strange aquatic lifeform - half man, half fish - being held there under lock and key by the brutal, obsessive Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa's neighbour and confidante, a comparably sad and lonely middle-aged man called Giles (Richard Jenkins), bids for an illustrating gig with a mock-up ad featuring a housewife brandishing a vivid red Jell-O. "It needs to be green," comes the rejection. Of course it does.

In both its styling and its telling, this is a picture-book simple fable: a mutant Free Willy sequel, steered towards a race-against-time in which the creature will be spirited away from its vicious handlers and delivered back to the ocean. Yet it's bolstered by a slow-blossoming depth of characterisation that has yet to be observed anywhere in the Jeunet filmography. Before the creature shows up, del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor sketch in nimble portraits of everyday solitude: it's here we find Elisa, letting her fingers do the talking and the walking, setting an egg to boil before taking her pleasure in the bathtub. (The makers of that old Cadbury's Flake advert might like to consider joining Jeunet in any class-action lawsuit.) The facility scenes, meanwhile, go towards a recognition of the precarious place occupied by the non-white, non-male humanoid in the Atomic Age workplace: the Latinate Elisa and her sister-in-cleaning supplies, the buoyant Zelda (Octavia Spencer), occupy the very lowest rung on the institutional ladder, there to mop and scrub at Strickland's say-so.

Yet the film is just as interested in the latter, bulking up the part from the one-dimensional caricature it might have been in other hands. So yes, evidently Strickland gets off on enforcing the kind of silence and complicity that have provided several dozen newspaper headlines of late, and his gangrenous fingers position him as an exemplar of literally toxic masculinity; but then del Toro and Taylor follow him home to his wife and kids, the better to observe how he behaves around people he's actually meant to care about. His colleague Dr. Robert Hofstettler (the suddenly resurgent Michael Stuhlbarg; and one of the film's connoisseurial pleasures is watching Stuhlbarg and Shannon circling one another) operates as a double agent, paid by the Russians to monitor developments at the American end. Some of these characters live dual lives; others lead no lives at all. The key - and the reason why, I think, this disarming fantasy has struck such a chord among early viewers - is that del Toro sees both the beauty and the potential for monstrousness in them all.

Among its many public services, The Shape of Water returns to the filmed fairytale that sex and violence that decades of Disney have trained out of filmmakers and audiences alike. del Toro and Taylor are not coy in depicting Elisa and the Creature's growing closeness: the two eventually get it on in a scene that squares the tenderness and lyricism of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête with the headspinning WTF-ness of Borowczyk's La Bête, then pirouette through a black-and-white musical number à la Fred-and-Ginger (and, just perhaps, Young Frankenstein). Love or loathe them, it is a film of unusual - sometimes kinky - choices, revelling in the kind of authorial flourishes executives have been known to shout down or scrub out. All I'd say in the film's defence is that, just as that Jell-O had to be green, so too this is the only way these events could play out. For all its scaly, slimy peculiarities, this hybrid-movie emerges as a monument to del Toro's immense skill and fluency as a storyteller; he may now be Spielberg's only real rival in capturing viewer imagination. Shape sustains itself by a sense, forever true and often very moving, of which channels to follow, and where all this frothing motion (and emotion) must lead; the outcome is a film that couples idiosyncratic detail and excellence of craft with the satisfying inevitability of the best fables. That green, it turns out, is no index of stagnancy or sickness, rather that of a cinema in rude health: renewing and organic, and enchanted like a forest.

The Shape of Water opens in cinemas nationwide today.  

Thursday, 15 February 2018

"Loveless" (Catholic Herald 15/02/18)

Writer-director Andrei Zvyagintsev has emerged over the past decade as the agonised conscience of Putin’s Russia, uniquely attuned to the state’s hypocrisies and the follies of his fellow man. After a run of critically admired yet underseen dramas – 2003’s The Return, 2007’s The Banishment, 2011’s Elena – Zvyagintsev made a major advance with 2014’s Leviathan, an electrifying cautionary tale that used a property dispute to illustrate the ability of unfeeling systems to crush individual lives. Loveless (***, 15, 127 mins), a strong contender for this year’s Foreign Film Oscar, offers a bleaker vision yet: a story of extreme self-interest and the world’s ghastliest divorce, it makes Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage look like Terry and June.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are modern professionals of a recognisable kind, caught up in their own lives, careers, phones. Their separation is a given; only the future of their ill-tended 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is unclear. Zhenya, appeasing her new man, insists Boris should have custody. Boris, tending a heavily pregnant mistress, considers childrearing a mother’s responsibility. An erstwhile status symbol recast as excess baggage, Alyosha has other ideas: one afternoon, he vanishes, uniting warring guardians in a search-and-rescue quest that might, in a Hollywood movie, be considered a prelude to reconciliation. In Zvyagintsev’s more fatalistic cinema, it entails a journey to the end of the world.

One reason Loveless draws us so deep into its chilly and unforgiving universe is Zvyagintsev’s constant redefinition of these emotionally frozen characters. Call it contrivance, call it clever dramatisation, but it feels apt that Zhenya’s inquiries should return her to her cantankerous mother’s shack, where we intuit exactly whence her slaphappy parenting style derives. The approach is not unlike that of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian filmmaker behind 2011’s lacerating A Separation. Zvyagintsev likewise converts humdrum domestic set-ups into finely acted theatre, deploying performers with bloodhound noses for nuance: clock the gruff cop who tries to reassure Zhenya of her boy’s return by noting “We all enjoy comfort. Your home has that.”

Cold comforts are all we’re getting here: we’re watching another family being dismantled under dishwater-grey skies, a scenario that opens onto the lower depths of human nature, and heads south from there. Still, that rigour remains valuable as an alternative to modern cinema’s glib frivolities, as does Zvyagintsev’s whistleblower-like ability to communicate internalised disquiet in discrete passing, as with the snatches of TV and radio commentary layered into the action. An early clip suggests this separation is occurring during the Obama-Romney Presidential debates of 2012 – the same year Putin ascended to power. By the time the coda has referenced the Ukraine conflict, Loveless has succeeded in setting shivering viewers to wonder: what else has been lost hereabouts of late?

Loveless is now showing in selected cinemas.

Monday, 12 February 2018

1,001 Films: "Scarface" (1983)

Anyone criticising Brian de Palma's coke-bloated, blood-spattered 1983 remix of Scarface for the manner in which it inflates Howard Hawks' original obviously wasn't paying attention to the hammy excesses of Paul Muni first time around, or the fact that a surfeit of tacky bling has long been essential get-up for any wannabe hood. (How many gangsta rappers have quoted de Palma's film, without apparent irony, in the years since?) Oliver Stone's screenplay reimagines Tony Montana (played here by Al Pacino) as a Cuban immigrant climbing the criminal ladder in 1980s Miami, his cocky insubordination getting it all: money, guns, girls (Michelle Pfeiffer, one year on from Grease 2, makes every one of her scenes count as a bored moll from Baltimore), power, paranoid delusions following hard on the stacked heels of his delusions of grandeur, and an inevitable demise, not in a hail of bullets, but a blizzard of cocaine.

A more legitimate criticism is that de Palma's conspicuous consumption, deliberate or otherwise, hasn't entirely dated well: some of the locations (the neon-lit Babylon nightclub, the shagpile carpets of kingpin Robert Loggia's crib) and the accoutrements (Pacino's blinding white suits, Giorgio Moroder's synth score) now come over as a terrible hangover from the disco era, and the general tackiness isn't helped by the insistence on pushing Tony's already close-knit relationship with his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the embodiment of those things he wants but cannot have, into intimated incest. As illustrated elsewhere by possibly the cheesiest of all 1980s movie montages (set to Paul Engemann's "Push It To The Limit"), it is, like many of de Palma's films from this point onwards, a faintly silly, insincere entertainment: pastiche, rather than meant. (Stone would have to direct Wall Street himself to make his points about the decade's greed stick in any way.) This director's technical brio keeps every scene well within the realms of garish watchability, even if what we eventually end up watching is no more than the advent of Shouty Al ("You fuckin' buy a gun!"), playing out a simplified version of the Corleone character arc, only with the volume cranked up as loud as some of the decor and leisurewear.

Scarface is available on DVD through Universal. 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

On DVD: "Loving Vincent"

By now, you'll likely have heard the story of Loving Vincent's production, representing as it does a technical breakthrough and a backwards gaze. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman shot a live-action drama - set a year after Vincent van Gogh's death, and riffing on a legend concerning the delivery of a letter the tragic painter had addressed to his brother Theo - then employed 100 predominantly Polish artists to handpaint over each frame in the established van Gogh style. (Something about this project speaks to the tireless industry of our Polish friends: we may have cause to miss these artisans in the years ahead.) Radically different filmmakers - Vincente Minnelli, Robert Altman, Maurice Pialat - have sought to revisit this moment in art history, but Loving Vincent is the first movie to attempt a literal reproduction of the painter's shades, textures and moods, tilting as it does at the same windmills and lingering in sunflower fields. Here is a film that begs to be seen and swooned over, even as it struggles on a minute-by-minute basis to reconcile the incredible sophistication of its toplayer with the humdrum artlessness lurking beneath it.

My suspicion is that the live-action drama Kobiela and Welchman shot was basically Europudding, jampacked with RADA graduates whose plummy regional accents stick out like a sore thumb in these particular Low Countries. The letter proves to be the basis of a quest narrative broadly as uninspired as that of any recent kids' animation: our blank-slate messenger-surrogate (Douglas Booth) hops from guest star to guest star (Chris O'Dowd, Helen McCrory, Saoirse Ronan) trying to find or figure something out, giving rise to a succession of monotonous Q&A sessions designed to stretch a van Gogh conspiracy theory out to fit a 95-minute feature. You could be excused for zoning out during these and refocusing your attentions on the pretty pictures, because they are very pretty indeed - it helps that Kobiela and Welchman chose to animate the likes of Booth, Ronan and Eleanor Tomlinson rather than, say, authentically grizzled Flanders farmers - but the editorial reframing of Vincent as a deeply troubled man, plagued by that depression and insecurity that has traditionally dogged artists through the ages, is undermined by the fact the writing has been undertaken with far less skill than the painting. The result is a beautifully polished curate's egg: you end up torn between wanting to hit pause to better admire the unarguable visual achievement, and an urge to lunge instead for the mute and fast-forward buttons. 

Loving Vincent is available on DVD through Altitude from tomorrow.