Tuesday, 22 May 2018

On demand: "Deadpool"

Ah, right. I'd left Deadpool for a rainy day/the inevitable sequel/until I absolutely had to see it, and it turns out - watched on Netflix, on an overcast Monday evening, with nothing much in the way of expectation - to be a perfectly functional receptacle for all Marvel's snarkier instincts: adolescent where the Avengers remain an essentially childish, action-figure concern, pushing a little further beyond the galaxy of the Guardians, with a hard-R rating (15 in the UK) that allows for try-hard swearing, brief nudity, many bloody demises, and a general air of what-the-hell irreverence. The movie equivalent of a sock deployed in the act of masturbation, every comic-book universe apparently needs one of these, to catch those sulky outliers and refuseniks who consider themselves too old or too worldly for squeaky-clean superhero juvenilia, but not old enough to plot their first high-school shooting: where Marvel has Deadpool, DC has its Suicide Squad, another 2016 release that profited from a ready audience of disaffected incels with lots of pent-up energy and plentiful leisure time.

Approached as a film rather than a PR phenomenon, Deadpool at least attempts something novel with that tattered concept of the origin story. From its jokily deconstructive opening credits ("Directed by Some Overpaid Jerk"), the whole film revolves around a single freeway battle that Ryan Reynolds' Pool, a.k.a. petty tough Wade Wilson, finds himself in; overpaid jerk Tim Miller uses the lulls in this action to brief us on how everybody got there. The upshot of this telescoping is that it takes barely an hour - rather than an entire movie, or three movies - to bring us up to speed. (The film runs to an appreciably brief 108 minutes: snark has a way of cutting to the nub of the matter.) Some fun ideas - a carefully choreographed three-in-one killshot, an extended sex scene tied to public holidays, one death by Zamboni - zing around inside this framing device, and it's undeniably liberating to encounter one of these films that isn't bound to do the 12A-rated right thing at every turn; there's none of that piousness that has always made, say, Captain America such a dullard to be around.

The one potential obstacle between you and an enjoyable night on the sofa is Deadpool himself, a character whose primary superpower is his ability to relentlessly generate glib wisecracks. The closer you are to fifteen - physically or emotionally - the funnier you will find these, and even then, you may find them hit and miss. A gag about 80s TV star Meredith Baxter Birney clearly isn't going to find traction with 21st century teenagers, and to this old man, it just wasn't funny - it's a reference, and that's about all it is. When Stan Lee shows up as a stripclub DJ to introduce a dancer called Chastity - "or, as I like to call her, Irony" - the assumption is that the core audience is so bovine that they need that irony flagged. I can't deny that I laughed - bartending sidekick Weasel (T.J. Miller) waves off the black-clad villains with "Have fun at your midnight screening of Blade II" (the precision tickled me) - but the general pose of subversive, nonconformist outsider art the film throws is just that: a pose, making Deadpool the Mountain Dew to the Avengers' Coke and the Guardians' Sprite. It's nice that a 21st century corporation should have arrived at such variety, and all these products evidently hit the spot every now and again, but it strikes me you can't legitimately chug one of these movies every two weeks (as they seem to be coming at us now) and then spend your time in the real world lamenting how we're all growing slower, fatter and dumber. Drink up, by all means, but let's drink responsibly.

Deadpool is now available to stream on Netflix; a sequel, Deadpool 2, is playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

1,001 Films: "Paris, Texas" (1984)

The title of Paris, Texas speaks to the whole: here are iconic images of Americana (diners, poolhalls, freeways, mountains) steered in a new European direction. Mute, bearded, baseball-capped Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) staggers out of the Mojave desert, having been AWOL for four years; driven back to his native L.A. and taken in by his brother (Dean Stockwell), he tries to reconnect with first the son he abandoned in his earlier life, then the rest of the country, including the wife who walked out on him back in the day (Nastassja Kinski). Behind the camera, Wim Wenders had clearly realised that Reagan's America was hung up on fathers and sons, reinvention, taciturn men striding out of a Western landscape to do what they've gotta do; what's possibly surprising is how much the filmmaker is himself in thrall to these themes and concerns. Jettisoning the critical eye Wenders brought to Alice in the Cities, Paris, Texas proves far more yielding than the average Werner Herzog inquiry; it has none of the zippy, subversive energy of Alex Cox's near-simultaneous Repo Man

The film's bedrocks are Stanton, who probably couldn't have played sentimental if he'd tried, and Robby Müller's cinematography, which really does bring a fresh pair of eyes to this part of the world. It is, however, a familiar trail to mosey on down merely to discover what turns out to be no more than a Martin Guerre or Paper Moon-like weepie with just enough Ry Cooder slide guitar on the soundtrack to have convinced the Scala crowd they were watching something profound; in actual fact, the final hour is Stanton going out of his way to tell Kinski, at punishing length, just what a terrible mother she's been. It's telling that the filmmaker who really seemed to dig it was another Scala fave: David Lynch, who went on to cast Stockwell in Blue Velvet and Stanton in The Straight Story, may well have been taken by the late-in-the-day peepshow business (Kinski and Audrey Horne are sisters in sweaters), and came to pursue his own path between the conspicuously cult and the oddly conservative.

Paris, Texas is available to buy through Axiom Films, and to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

Friday, 18 May 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 11-13, 2018:

1 (1) Avengers: Infinity War (12A) ***

2 (new) Sherlock Gnomes (U) **
3 (2) I Feel Pretty (12A)
4 (new) Life of the Party (12A)
5 (new) Breaking In (15) ***
6 (3) A Quiet Place (15) ****
7 (4The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)
8 (6) Blade Runner: The Final Cut (15) ****
9 (5Rampage (12A)
10 (new) Raazi (12A) ****

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. 2001: a Space Odyssey

2. The Sound of Music [above]
3. Raazi
4. Jeune Femme
5. One Man's Madness

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
2 (3) Pitch Perfect 3 (12)
3 (2) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12) ***
4 (5) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
5 (7) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
6 (new) Singularity (12)
7 (8) Doctor Strange (12) **
8 (4) Hostiles (15) **
9 (10) Justice League (12)
10 (12) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12) **

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. The Square

2. The Ice King
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. The Post
5. Coco

The messiest mademoiselle: "Jeune Femme"

It's been dubbed the "messy women" subgenre, though perhaps "women" would suffice. (Labellers are such neatfreaks.) Certainly, our movies and TV shows have been working hard of late to expand the definition of how the fairer sex might appear on screen, yielding a run of characters who have arrived unvarnished, deglamorised, rootless and purposeless, all rough edges and sharp corners, and growing more abrasive by the minute. The pushback against the aspirational, Sex & the City-era beauty myth began in the US, with the near-simultaneous emergence of Bridesmaids and Girls; it's already passed through the UK, with the BBC series Fleabag and the indie success Daphne, and now reaches France in the form of Jeune Femme, a Camera d'Or-winning debut from writer-director Léonor Serraille. Serraille's film bears a site-specific kick: in place of the usual well-tailored mademoiselle elegantly stiletto-heeling her way around the boulevards of Paris, we're introduced to une fille who's falling apart at the seams. Aspirational, no; recognisable, yes.

When we first join 31-year-old Paula (Laeticia Dosch), she's literally bashing her brains in: using her head as a battering ram on the door of the flat from which she's just been unceremoniously turfed by her boyfriend. After being sectioned, released back into society, and then stealing off with her ex's cat, Paula finds herself jobless and homeless - spending mere hours on a friend's couch after she pisses off her host - reduced to stumbling around the streets by day and returning to a grotty hotel at night. That her ex is a photographer who's profited from an image of Paula seems significant: our heroine's entire identity appears to have been taken from her overnight, forcing her to start over from scratch. When a contemporary mistakes her for someone else during another aimless ride on the Metro, Paula goes along with it, gaining both a job and a place to stay - but the pretence, the latest bad decision made by a young woman who's both a walking nightmare and someone we know all too well, cannot hold.

Framing the film as plainly and humourlessly as that makes it sound somewhat like the work of that past master of French austerity Maurice Pialat - and positions Paula as a latter-day vagabond - but then Jeune Femme wouldn't be the generational portrait it is without its jagged edges: conversations that don't lead anywhere, a general sense of drift, niggling conflict between Paula and her careerist employer, not to mention unfinished business between our heroine and her mother, that recurring site of feminist inquiry. What makes it a good deal more fun to watch is Dosch's gauche goofiness, her unabashed willingness to talk to plants or carry that (baffled and furious-looking) cat around wherever she goes. Paula is the definition of a hot mess, but she's very easy to pal around with, which leaves us slightly more reassured as to her future: it'd be a cruel director who wanted to punish or condemn her.

Serraille's sensibility is altogether comic and restorative. It's lightly (rather than grimly) ironic that her heroine should find employment in a chichi boutique, selling posh knickers she can't get onto the mannequins, and she stages one great tableau that finds Paula waking up in a bed in a most unlikely position, still wearing the headphones she was using the night before. (There will almost certainly be viewers who say: yeah, I've done that.) Linear plot is forsaken for scenes, skits and observations: there is a strong sense of a film patching itself together much as its heroine does, a marriage of form and subject that obviously suits a modestly budgeted indie like this more than it would a glossy romcom. What Jeune Femme nails is an idea of muddling through, which many twenty- and thirtysomethings - for whom job security, and even life security, has never been on the table - cannot fail to recognise: here are ninety-odd minutes of consolation for anyone labouring away under late capitalism, unsure of the rules of the game, let alone how they might win.

Jeune Femme opens in selected cinemas from today, and is available to stream through Curzon Home Cinema.  

"One Man's Madness" (Guardian 18/05/18)

One Man’s Madness ***
Dir: Jeff Baynes. Documentary with: Lee Thompson, Suggs, Mike Barson, Mark Bedford. No cert. 80 mins.

The movie year began with Suggs reminiscing in Julien Temple’s playful collage My Life Story; now we find saxophonist and songwriter Lee “Thommo” Thompson skanking down memory lane in Jeff Baynes’ lively oral history of all things Madness. If the framing is broadly conventional – that basic, BBC4-courting mix of talking heads, underexposed archive footage and lovingly framed album covers – Baynes has one wildcard up his sleeve: Thompson himself, who appears, often dragged-up, miming to the testimonies of his mother, sister, wife and other witnesses – a technique inspired either by Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Nick Park’s Creature Comforts, or the band’s own TOTP appearances.

It’s true, certainly, to the larky spirit of Madness, and the wider theatricality of the post-punk scene into which the group emerged; stylised opening credits – introducing key players and themes in the manner of the Peel/Steed Avengers – offer Thompson rare credits for hair, make-up and “character development”. As for Thommo himself, it’s the story of how a Camden delinquent – oft-chased by baton-wielding coppers, as per later promos – found a creative channel for his unruly, raspberry-blowing energies. PA James O’Gara suggests “If [Lee] wasn’t in the band, he’d be locked up in a secure unit”, and you sense Thompson sailing close to the wind even today with his depiction of lawyer Julian Turton as a ruddy-nosed boozer.

It isn’t just messing about in wardrobe. Centralising a songwriter allows Baynes to address the refinement of what was originally trumpeted as “the heavy-heavy monster sound”. A segment on the Thompson-penned “Embarrassment” points up intriguing attitudinal differences between Madness and idealistic Two-Tone contemporaries The Specials; their tightness as a musical unit becomes doubly apparent when set against the sprawling anarchy of Thompson’s side project Crunch. No surprise to find ace musicologist Neil Brand among the contributors – albeit as embodied by Thompson in a Jimmy Edwards-style mortarboard. Chiefly for the fans who crowdfunded it, but cheeky enough to have wider appeal. 

One Man's Madness tours selected cinemas from today.

"A Love That Never Dies" (Guardian 18/05/18)

A Love That Never Dies **
Dirs: Jimmy Edmonds, Jane Harris. Documentary with Edmonds, Harris. 75 mins. Cert: 12A

Here’s an especially tricky film to assess. To see it is to risk feeling as though you are intruding upon some wounding, deeply personal loss; to rate it risks invalidating the participants’ grief. The plain, unemotional facts are these: this is an independently funded and released documentary by Jimmy Edmonds and Jane Harris, a British couple whose son Josh died, aged 22, in a car accident while touring Ho Chi Minh in 2011. In the ensuing years, the pair have travelled America, reaching out to fellow parents who’ve ended up in the unnatural position of having to bury their children, and inviting them to speak about the unspeakable.

Responses from tearful defeat to unending rage are collected and assembled, offset by those rituals of remembrance the subjects find consoling: Jimmy, touchingly, clings to his son’s vast photo archive. The interviewees, however, come from an altogether limited spectrum. Though the filmmakers make a brief stop-off to mourn the passing of a white teenager who volunteered within poorer neighbourhoods, there is a glaring shortage of input from communities which have suffered disproportionately from burying their young; it would have meant venturing beyond the comfortably appointed suburban homes Edmonds and Harris gravitated towards.

The road movie framing lets some West Coast sunshine in on these dark, depressive topics, but equally opens the filmmakers to accusations of grief tourism: there’s often more scenery – the Grand Canyon, desert highways – than real clarity or insight. There’s one compelling encounter with the parents of a boy slain by his father’s gun, and we shouldn’t discount the project’s inbuilt cathartic value. Yet these 75 minutes keep raising questions the directors don’t have the time, distance or editorial rigour to answer satisfactorily. Can privilege help cushion death’s hammer blow? Does money make it easier to outrun grief? The film’s honesty goes only so far. 

A Love That Never Dies opens in selected cinemas from today.

Spy in the house of love: "Raazi"

It's become apparent over recent years that Alia Bhatt is Bollywood's brightest new star, the Jennifer Lawrence of the Southern hemisphere. Understandably, either she or the industry she works in - or a serendipitous combination of both - has so far been protective of her talents: she's never seemed overexposed, which has allowed her onscreen responses to remain fresh and surprising, she's had a strong eye for apt, commercially appealing scripts, and she's integrated well amid large ensembles, which - as it surely has done with Lawrence over in Hollywood - has helped reduce whatever burdens that come with becoming a major movie megastar before you're even a quarter-century old. (She had only to prop up one end of the marquee hosting 2015's goofy wedding comedy Shaandaar, and even 2016's Top 10 hit Dear Zindagi was sold on her proximity to Shah Rukh Khan.) Raazi, an old-school star vehicle in which Bhatt plays a Mata Hari-like historical figure, feels like the first real test of the actress's ability to hold the camera's gaze and open a movie by herself; among its many fascinations is the sense that writer-director Meghna Gulzar has taken a traditionally masculine genre - the wartime spy picture - and feminised it to perfectly accentuate her star's shoulders. Here is the Red Sparrow that merits serious, sustained study.

The backdrop - the 1971 escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan - may initially raise concerns that Gulzar is somewhat opportunistically tapping into that wave of nationalism currently sweeping not just this region but the world entire. It isn't just the period specs and Firthesque bearing of handler Mr. Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat) that gives early scenes the air of a Kingsman-like retro makeover fantasy: Bhatt's Sehmat Khan is plucked, fresh as a daisy, from the lawns of Delhi University, sequestered away to be instructed in the finer points of handling a weapon, and eventually dispatched over the border onto rockier, far more treacherous ground. Yet Gulzar permits none of the egregious flagwaving and willy-waggling associated with the British franchise. The Pakistani military clan Sehmat is married into for reasons of Indian national security are, with the possible exception of a suspicious footman who twigs our heroine might be here on the make, innately good people who mourn the losses their side endure, and not the monsters a far more simplistic feature would have them pegged as; Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), the upright commander's son whose hand she takes, is a kind and cultured soul, insisting the pair take time to get to know one another, before presenting his bride with a trove of Indian classical LPs.

Spywork is here not a matter not of necksnapping and bodydropping - Bhatt, far from the Angelina model of star, doesn't have the build for it - but insidious emotional betrayal; our heroine - introduced rescuing a squirrel from traffic in a manner that suggests her gifts lie with preservation rather than cold-blooded termination - cries whenever she has to take a life, which is not something we ever caught James Bond or Jason Bourne doing. Certainly, the excellent Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy score tends more towards sensitive keening than conventional action-movie pulsing, the song lyrics (by the director's father, the writer and poet Gulzar) tying very closely to the ebb and flow of the plot, but then this is a rare 130-minute Hindi feature with no unnecessary gestures, no wasted energies, and which benefits immeasurably from holding ultra-tight focus on its protagonist: it's a thriller that realises you don't need characters chasing one another over the rooftops when what's going on beneath their feet is so fraught. At base, Raazi is a domestic drama about a young woman taken prematurely from her actual home and sent to keep an eye on a place where she doesn't belong, knowing full well that to let her cover slip would be fatal; this set-up yields tense setpiece after tense setpiece in the second half, as Sehmat strives, amid rapidly rising stakes, to do what she's been sent to do, and get out before she's found out.

The casting proves both inspired, and a reflection of inspired intelligence tactics first time around: you completely understand why Sehmat's hosts would never, in a billion lifetimes, suspect this apparently meek, dollfaced pipsqueak (codename: "The Bride") of anything so underhand as subterfuge or murder. Yet there's also something in how Gulzar co-opts Bhatt's established star persona - how she takes this outward-looking, forward-thinking girl-next-door, and all but imprisons her for two hours within the machinations of warring states - which is quietly and powerfully feminist. Raazi is a multiplex thriller first and foremost, and one that works superbly as such, but it also sparks more than the odd thought on the dreadfully vulnerable positions conflict can leave women in. Sehmat's final-reel howl at her handler, a lament for everything this mission has taken away from her, is both electrifying and heartbreaking - a long pent-up expression of all that this character has been forced to internalise, and a reminder she was, and to some degree still is, but a child. I went into Raazi fairly secure in my conviction that Bhatt was the best young actress currently working in Bollywood; I came away, shaken, from its closing ten minutes mulling over the possibility she may now be the best young actress working anywhere in the world.  

Raazi is now playing in cinemas nationwide.